US Arab allies wary over Iran overtures

Concerns raised by Arab leaders sound strikingly similar to those coming from Israeli officials.

Gates Al-Malik 248.88  (photo credit: AP)
Gates Al-Malik 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Washington's efforts to start a dialogue with Iran have sent ripples of alarm through the capitals of America's closest Arab allies, who accuse Teheran of playing a destabilizing role in the Middle East. The concerns being raised by Arab leaders sound strikingly like those coming from the mouths of Israeli officials. "We hope that any dialogue between countries will not come at our expense," said a statement Tuesday by the six oil-rich nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council, who have long relied on US protection in the region. The Obama administration has been reaching out to Iran in a marked shift after shunning contacts for decades. But US allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel, say Teheran is not a positive force in the region with its support for Islamic terror groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit conveyed the concerns this week when US envoy Dennis Ross, who is dealing with Iran, visited Cairo. "Iran's behavior in the region is negative in many aspects and does not help in advancing security, stability and peace," he told Ross. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was in Saudi Arabia and Egypt this week, has sought to reassure the Arab allies that any contacts with Iran would be "open and transparent" and regional allies would be kept informed "so nobody gets surprised." He said Tuesday that so far, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's response to the US outreach has been "not very encouraging." "We're not willing to pull the hand back yet because we think there's still some opportunity," Gates said. "But I think concerns out there of some kind of a grand bargain developed in secret are completely unrealistic." He was referring to speculation in the Middle East that the Obama administration was trying to forge a grand Middle East peace settlement with Iran whereby the US would press Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, perhaps a Palestinian state, in exchange for Teheran rolling back its nuclear program. Israel and the US suspect Iran's program to enrich uranium is aimed at developing nuclear weapons - a concern shared by the GCC. "There exists a strategic and military threat (to Gulf countries) and we are against any nuclear program that isn't approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency because we believe that the Iranian nuclear program should not destabilize the region," the organization said in its statement. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's son, an increasingly influential figure in the regime, said Tuesday that Egypt and Iran also do not always see eye to eye. "Both Egypt and Iran are key countries in the region, but we have our differences regarding the future of the region and peace," said Gamal Mubarak. Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation, has long seen Iran as a regional rival. Egypt has become increasingly vocal over its concerns about Iran, especially following its discovery in April of what it described as a "Hezbollah cell" plotting to destabilize the country. The Iranian-backed Lebanese group has denied the accusations, while admitting it did have an operative in Egypt supervising weapons shipments to the Palestinian Hamas group. In a rare confluence of interests with its Arab neighbors, Israel has also singled out Iran as the greatest threat to stability in the region. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is set to meet with US President Barack Obama later this month and is expected to push for a tough US stance on Iran. Israel argues that progress in peace with the Palestinians can't happen unless Iran is reined in. The London-based Palestinian daily, Al-Quds Al-Arabi even said the Arab moderates governments were actively working on building an alliance with Israel to counter Iranian influence in the region. The Wednesday report, citing Palestinian officials, said Egyptian and Jordanian diplomats were working to amend the 2002 Arab peace initiative to make it more acceptable to Israel. The report could not be independently confirmed. Iran, meanwhile, has not substantially changed its rhetoric over the issues of Middle East peace and its backing of Israel's enemies. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met with Syrian leaders Tuesday and reiterated support for "Palestinian resistance." He also met with the chiefs of Hamas and other Damascus-based Palestinian terror groups during his visit to Syria. Iran is a strong supporter of Islamic militants in the region, including Hamas and Hizbullah. "Syria and Iran have been from the very beginning united and in agreement to stand on the side of the Palestinian resistance," Ahmadinejad said. "They will continue to do so. We see that the resistance will continue until all occupied territories are liberated."