- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 19, 2007

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP)

The top U.S. military commander for the Middle East is pressing Arab allies to form a more united front against Iran, seen by Washington as the region’s long-term threat.

At military compounds and royal reception halls across the Persian Gulf, Adm. William J. Fallon is delivering personal appeals to Arab leaders to counter Iran’s ambitions to expand its regional influence and move ahead with its nuclear program.

Adm. Fallon has carefully avoided publicly discussing any war contingency plans or making any direct threats against Iran, which sits in his sphere of operations. As head of U.S. Central Command, he oversees forces in Central Asia, the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.

His 10-day trip, which began Saturday in Bahrain, was more about seeking to quietly galvanize Gulf leaders while letting others sharply escalate pressure on Tehran. On Sunday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the world should prepare for war if Iran obtains nuclear weapons.

“We are not looking for a new NATO-type alliance against Iran,” Adm. Fallon told the Associated Press after talks with Bahrain’s defense minister, Sheik Khalifa bin Ahmad Al Khalifa.

But the U.S. wants that “when [the Iranians] look to the Gulf, they see a group united in response to Iranian hegemonic behavior,” Adm. Fallon said.

That’s not such a simple task.

Many of the small Gulf nations, including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, have deep cultural, historical or business ties to Iran and increasingly look to Iran as a crucial source for oil and gas as their own fields begin to dwindle in coming decades. They also worry about angering local Shi’ite communities with affinity to Shi’ite heavyweight Iran.

In May, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was allowed by authorities in Dubai — the economic dynamo of the Emirates — to lead a rare anti-American rally a day after a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney aimed at countering Tehran’s influence.

Still, strong forces pull Gulf states in Washington’s direction.

The Gulf’s main power, Saudi Arabia, worries about its regional rival Iran increasing its influence among Shi’ite Muslims, who form a majority in Iraq and have significant communities among the Sunni-dominated nations of the Gulf.

Washington also has forged close military alliances across the Gulf with about 40,000 U.S. troops on land bases — including Kuwait as a key staging ground for Iraq and an expanding presence in Bahrain as host of the U.S. 5th Fleet headquarters.

Adm. Fallon carries the message that the Gulf states are an important front-line deterrent to Iran, which controls the entire northern coastline of the Gulf and could threaten critical oil tanker routes through the Strait of Hormuz.

The United States and other nations, led by Britain and Australia, currently have more than two dozen ships in the Gulf region, including the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and two amphibious ships with their strike groups.

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