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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Even its name is controversial. It may be called the Persian Gulf on most maps, however, if you put it that way to an Arab, he will politely inform you that it is the Arab Gulf. The Media Line style guide rather diplomatically refers to it as "the Gulf" in order to avoid unnecessary quibbles with Persians and Arabs.
That difference is symptomatic of the huge gulf that lies between Iran on the one hand and the nations just a hop, skip and jump away that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council - the GCC.
If it were just about a name, the international community, led in this case by the United States, would not be quite so jittery every time the "G" word is mentioned on the news.
The GCC members - Saudi Arabia, and from north to south, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman - are right now extremely fearful that any Western strike against Iran will bring them into direct confrontation with their neighbor across the water. Senior politicians, diplomats and generals in Teheran have made it clear in recent months that an attack against Iranian interests will be met initially with a counter-strike aimed at the GCC states.
The GCC is taking the Iranian threat so seriously it has decided to create a joint military that will coalesce troops from all six member states. The idea was first talked up publicly last year; now, top officers from the GCC nations have said they want the force to have attacking powers in addition to the defensive role originally mooted.
Given that any Western airborne or missile attack against Iran would be launched by American, Israeli, French or British forces (probably in that order of likelihood), it seems somewhat unfair that fellow Muslims should come under fire in a retaliatory operation.
So why would Iran want to attack so close to home?
One simple reason is that very proximity. It is far easier to launch a few missiles across the Gulf knowing your accuracy is pretty much guaranteed, rather than developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), costing billions in the hope they will hit their targets and can evade the multi-billion dollar defense systems installed by the US, Israel and other nations.
That having been said, Teheran is known to be developing longer-range missiles. Its Shihab models can reach much of Western Europe. However, the GCC is a much softer target, with far fewer defensive resources and, too be honest, far less likely to be defended by Western militaries in the event of an attack than Washington DC, London or Jerusalem.
There is a considerable international military presence in the GCC countries, US army, naval and air-force bases, in particular. All of these would prove to be far easier targets than the American mainland or Europe.
THEN THERE is the ideological reasoning. In recent years it has become clear to many that the main war in the Middle East is not between Arabs and Jews but rather among Muslims. The hatred displayed by Shi'ites for Sunnis and vice versa has led to fighting across the region. For example, if one looks at Yemen, which is attempting to become the seventh member of the GCC, the ongoing battle between the forces of the central government in 'Sana and the Al-Houthi rebels in the north is being fought across the sectarian divide.
The recent clampdown in Bahrain on opposition movements is a bid by the Sunni leadership to repress the Shi'ite majority. The same can be said of the treatment dished out by Teheran to its Sunni minority (and its Arabs).
Just because Iranians and Arabians believe in the Prophet Muhammad, that does not mean they do not have hatred for one another, built up over one-and-a-half millennia.
There is also modern ideology at play. The GCC is increasingly adopting a pro-Western stance, with an emirate like Dubai appearing increasingly like an American city with some of the French Riviera thrown in for good measure. American accents are heard not only in the boardrooms of Gulf companies but increasingly on the streets, as visitors pour into the increasingly decadent shopping malls. It is a lifestyle shunned by Teheran, even if many of the tourists and workers speak Persian.
Yet, with all that animosity and the threats, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is talking up cooperation with the Gulf states. He and his ministers are either hosting or visiting GCC leaders on a weekly basis and issuing statements about cooperation.
This strategy leaves the GCC in something of a quandary. On the one hand there are the warnings from Iran and the embrace from the West; on the other, Iran is still a fellow Muslim state, a neighbor and a large market and pool of relatively cheap labor.
No wonder then that US President George W. Bush spent more time in his recent regional trip focusing on the GCC states than he did on the Palestinians and Israelis.
And all of this without mentioning the black gold that is still so precious in the East, the West and, of course, in the Gulf.
The writer is the MidEast Bureau Chief of The Media Line news agency. www.themedialine.org