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Cohen: Middle East fearful of Iran

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said Tuesday that fears about Iran have replaced animosity toward Israel as the top concern of governments in the Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East.

Mr. Cohen, a former senator from Maine who was the only Republican in President Clinton's Cabinet, from 1997 to 2001, also warned the Obama administration that it would be a "mistake" to promise Russia to scale back plans for a missile-defense shield in Europe before Moscow helps stop Iran's nuclear ambitions. He gently chided top administration officials for recent comments criticizing Russia, which he said needlessly antagonized a Kremlin still resentful of U.S. treatment after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Having made six trips to the Gulf in the past 18 months, Mr. Cohen came to a conclusion reached by other U.S. and foreign diplomats and analysts regarding Arab jitters about Iranian influence.

"What has changed in the Gulf region from my perspective is that, in all my years in the past, the first thing I'd get was a lecture about Israel, and it could last for a long time," Mr. Cohen told editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

"I no longer receive that, and when I go and travel, what I hear is, there is greater fear of Iran than there is animus toward Israel," he said. "So that is almost a predominant sentiment that I've noticed throughout most, if not all, of the Gulf states."

Mr. Cohen, who after leaving office in 2001 founded the global consulting firm the Cohen Group, said that many Arab leaders have made gestures toward Israel in a sign of their shifting strategic concerns. He cited a meeting he attended that was hosted by the emir of Qatar last year and also included Tzipi Livni, who was Israel's foreign minister.

"I think [the Arabs] accept the fact that Israel is going to be there, it's going to exist, and now the question is, how do you solve the issue for the Palestinians?" he said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said that several Gulf foreign ministers have expressed concerns about Iran's nuclear program. Last week, she reprised a position from her unsuccessful presidential campaign, saying the United States could extend a "defense umbrella" over its allies in the Gulf if Iran did not abandon its apparent pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Cohen said the situation with Iran underlined the need for closer U.S. relations with Russia, which provides Iran with weapons and has offered nuclear fuel as a substitute for Iranian enrichment of uranium.

"Nothing is going to happen in respect to Iran without the support of the Russians," he said.

However, Mr. Cohen chided President Obama for signaling in a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev earlier this year that the U.S. might cancel a proposed missile-defense deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic if Moscow helps with Iran. The lack of an Iranian threat would make the highly sophisticated and expensive project less useful, Mr. Obama said.

"To do that before you have any agreement on Iran would be a mistake," Mr. Cohen said. "It's premature, because as long as North Korea, and especially as long as Iran, remains a threat to us, then we are going to go forward with that missile-defense capability, as is currently envisioned.

"If, however, you are to weigh in and joined the effort to send a signal to Iran that you are prepared to really crack down on that country, then there is basis for agreement and we may be able to have some kind of renegotiation on the placement of things," he said.

Recent comments by Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. have not been consistent with official U.S. policy of "resetting" the relationship with Russia, Mr. Cohen added.

Nearly 20 years after the end of the Cold War, "the Russians are still pretty angry at the U.S.," Mr. Cohen said.

"There is deep-seated resentment" and they "think we took advantage of the collapse of their empire ... and they feel like the Rodney Dangerfield of Europe," he said, referring to the late comedian who complained that he could get "no respect."

Mr. Biden told the Wall Street Journal last week that the Russians "have a withering economy" and a "banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years."

Just before going to Moscow earlier this month, Mr. Obama said that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin still has one foot in the Cold War.

"Whenever you are dealing with other countries, whatever your private feelings may be, you need to treat those countries with respect," Mr. Cohen said. "Whatever negative views you have, you hold them for yourself."

Just as Russia is pivotal to dealing with Iran, Mr. Cohen said, China is critical to containing and reversing North Korea's nuclear program.

Quoting the late American playwright William Inge, Mr. Cohen said, "You can build a throne of swords but you can't sit on it unless you give them a cushion. You have to take the cushion [of foreign aid] away" from North Korea.