Washington Watch: Arabs to Netanyahu: Hold your fire!

They want to see the Iranian nuclear program destroyed, but they fear the political fallout.

Iranian aircraft (photo credit: Reuters)
Iranian aircraft
(photo credit: Reuters)
Allies in the Persian Gulf are telling American officials in Congress and the administration that the sanctions and other pressure on Iran are working and this is a time to ratchet up the pressure and keep the bombers on the ground. But if all else fails and the military option is the only way to prevent Tehran from getting nuclear weapons, it should be the Americans, not the Israelis, who do the job.
They want to see the Iranian nuclear program destroyed – both military and civilian – as much as Israel does, but they fear the political fallout on their own streets if the planes and missiles that do the job carry the Star of David.
The objections are not based on the old Arab hostility toward the Zionist entity, the Gulf officials tell American friends, in fact they say they’d like to have good relations with Israel. Actually some already do, but they are kept very quiet out of fear of the reaction on the Arab street.
And that’s what worries them.
An Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites would inflame emotions among the Arab masses, making it difficult for their own governments to embrace the (welcome) results and help the United States stabilize the oil markets. They fear that would make them look like they were collaborating with Israel, which they say is in no one’s interest.
They don’t want a repeat of what happened on the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain over the past year.
Arab leaders around the region echoed President Barack Obama’s call to wind down the war talk and saber rattling by Members of Congress, Republican presidential candidates, some Jewish groups and the media. The only thing that accomplishes is to artificially drive up oil prices, they insist.
It doesn’t matter how many barrels we pump or how much capacity we have, the speculators will use all the war talk to drive up prices and their profits, said several oil ministry officials. We want a steady oil market. If prices go too high they feel it will have a negative impact on developing economies and future markets, and if it goes too low it will hurt the energy industry they depend on. The ideal price, they add, is between $70 and $90 per barrel; the current price is between $105 and $110.
The Gulf States have indicated they will replace lost Iranian oil when the European embargo kicks in next July; that will prevent a shortage of supply not keep the speculators from driving up prices. The biggest factor in higher prices is the fear of an Israeli strike, according to most industry analysts.
President Obama, in South Korea for a global summit on nuclear security, said the “window is closing” for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff with Iran. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to tell the Iranians they have one “last chance” to reach a negotiated settlement, according to a Russian newspaper, Kommersant. The same article quoted Russian UN diplomats saying it is a “matter of when, not if” Israel attacks the Iranian nuclear installations.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been warning that time is running out, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak says Iran is moving toward a “zone of immunity.”
Both fear the international community doesn’t understand the gravity of the problem and Iran is not yet feeling enough pain to take them seriously. Arab leaders privately agree, but they say Israeli leaders should consider the political and financial impact of a war.
THE ECONOMIES of the industrialized nations are not fully recovered from the great recession, rising gasoline prices have become a campaign issue in the American elections and the war talk is already driving up worldwide oil prices unnecessarily, in the view of those who own the oil wells.
Israel isn’t the only source of the war talk. Several Gulf Arab officials suggested the cash-strapped Iranian government is planting stories in the western media about oil shortages, supply cutoffs, closing the Straits of Hormuz and other measures in order to manipulate the price of oil.
It’s more than oil that worries Gulf Arab leaders. The Arab uprisings have shifted their attention to problems within the Arab world and especially in their own backyards.
Outside the context of Iran, Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians are not on their minds, report recent visitors to the region.
Iran is their greatest worry. It is pouring money and arms into Syria to prop up Bashar Assad, into Yemen to buy influence in that weak and unstable country that already is a base for al-Qaida, and is about to expand its foothold in Iraq, which, along with Russia, is also helping Assad.
Iran’s nuclear program troubles its neighbors not only because having the bomb would allow it to blackmail them but because most of its neighbors will want one, too, particularly Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Kuwait and UAE. They also are concerned that an accident in one of Iran’s civilian nuclear reactors could contaminate the Persian Gulf, which is the source of desalinated drinking water for surrounding countries.
When Israel destroyed the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor 31 years ago, it was roundly condemned by the Reagan administration and the entire Arab world, which at the same time privately rejoiced. This time the Arabs are saying, we agree with you, Israel, on the need to stop the Iranians, but it is best for you and for us to let Uncle Sam do the job.