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Arab contempt for Iran is highlighted

Leaked memos further agitate the ill will over Tehran's nuclear program and influence on militant groups.

December 01, 2010|Jeffrey Fleishman

CAIRO — The Middle East has been suspicious of Iran for years, but the recent disclosure of diplomatic cables highlights the contempt that has spurred Arab countries to strengthen their defenses, including Saudi Arabia's $60-billion deal with the United States to buy missiles and F-15 fighter jets.

Confidential memos from U.S. embassies made public over the weekend by WikiLeaks are not likely to reshape the region's political maneuverings. But they have further agitated the ill will between Tehran and Arab capitals over Iran's nuclear enrichment program and its influence on militant groups in Iraq, the Gaza Strip and other locales.

The release of the cables has narrowed diplomatic wiggle room. Saudi King Abdullah, quoted as urging the U.S. to attack Iran, is likely to find it tough convincing Tehran that he supports regional harmony. The leaks also reveal that Arab countries have a deeper reliance on Washington than they care to acknowledge to their largely anti-American populations.

"There is no surprise in this relationship but it will give opposition groups the ability to say, 'Look at the puppets your leaders are,' " said Randa Habib, a Jordan-based political analyst. "But because it concerns Iran it is somewhat understandable. The fear of gulf leaders is genuine over how this large country [Iran] can eat them."

Although obsessed by Iran's bluster and intrigue, Arab countries have limited options. Talk of countering Tehran has led to calls for increased diplomacy and the possibility of Arab capitals starting or expanding nuclear programs that could manufacture weapons. Such a prospect would make more precarious a part of the world mired in war, terrorism and sectarian hostilities.

"There are those who argue that Iran's development of nuclear warheads would pose a threat to Saudi Arabia and other gulf states, thus launching a nuclear arms race," read an editorial in the pan-Arab Al Quds al Arabi newspaper. "However, why does the response not take the form of a full-fledged Arab nuclear program, especially since the Arabs have the money, capabilities and required alliances" for a nuclear deterrent?

The more pressing concern for Arab Sunni Muslim states is keeping Shiite Muslim Iran off-balance in strategic countries. Gulf leaders want to contain Iran's influence in Iraq and diminish its grip on Islamic militant parties, such as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel's security concerns have intensified the debate on the Iranian threat in recent years, but Arab nations have been attempting to outflank Tehran for generations.

"The official stance in the Middle East, led by Saudi Arabia and including countries like Egypt, Jordan, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, has always been that it is Iran and not Israel that poses the main threat to the region," said Mustafa El-Labbad, director of Al Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

"What WikiLeaks did was unveil everything to regular citizens around the world and this has led to the embarrassment of regimes in the Middle East. But there is nothing new in the cables," he said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the diplomatic disclosures "psychological warfare" by the U.S. He was quoted as saying, "Regional countries are all friends with each other. Such mischief will have no impact on the relations of countries."

The leaked musings of diplomats, kings and presidents come at a sensitive time in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are anxious about who will succeed Abdullah and President Hosni Mubarak, both in their 80s. Opposition anger, poverty and failing education systems have added domestic pressures to international tension across the region.

Ahmadinejad and Iran's ruling theocracy have their own constraints. Tehran is beset with international economic sanctions aimed at its nuclear program, which Iran says is for civilian purposes only, but the West suspects is aimed at producing weapons. A large U.S. military presence looms nearby, including U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and the Navy's 5th Fleet in Bahrain.

Saudi Arabia's $60-billion arms deal with the U.S. -- negotiated during Iran's standoff with the West over its nuclear program -- consists mainly of conventional weapons. But, more important, the sale is viewed by some analysts as a financial favor to keep Saudi Arabia's oil fields protected by its most powerful friend.

"It's a bribe," Habib said. "Saudi Arabia buys U.S. equipment to stay on the good side of Washington. It's more of an economic deal to benefit the U.S. The great majority of Arabs fear Iran. They believe it is too rich and too powerful and will never be an ally."

Nabil Fahmy, former Egyptian ambassador to the United States, said of the diplomatic documents: "I don't think they will change policy, but they will probably make everyone in the region very cautious in what he conveys and doesn't convey" to American officials.

Amro Hassan in The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.

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