MANAMA - Invoking religious faith and desert folklore, Gulf Arab officials proclaim wariness about a possible thaw in relations between their ally the United States and regional rival Iran.
A former Iranian official says the Islamic Republic and its neighbors should learn peaceful coexistence, without Gulf Arabs relying on the West for security. US-Iranian détente could bolster stability from north Africa to central Asia, he says.
The exchange at a security forum in Bahrain at the weekend was hardly a meeting of minds, and few expect years of mistrust between Shi'ite regional power Iran and Sunni Muslim-ruled states led by Saudi Arabia to be dispelled in an instant.
Listening to it, Harvard scholar and former White House official Gary Samore said he expected forthcoming nuclear talks between Tehran and international powers, most of them allies of the Gulf Arabs, to be "a very protracted and difficult negotiation with uncertain results".
But two days of debate between strategists from Iran and Gulf Arab states at the Manama Dialogue, the Gulf's top security conference, produced an unusually open give-and-take, short on vitriol, albeit laced with thinly veiled criticisms.
The meeting of military officers, diplomats and analysts in Bahrain was the first time public figures from Saudi Arabia and Iran had publicly debated security in the Gulf since a Nov. 24 interim nuclear accord between Tehran and world powers.
That agreement has raised the possibility of a détente in three decades of US-Iranian confrontation, dismaying some Gulf Arab officials who worry that this might eventually enable Iran to fashion a new regional hegemony at their expense.