- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 7, 2009

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not get an invitation to the annual summit of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a reversal from one year earlier when Iran was the surprise invitee.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s absence from the GCC meeting in Oman reflects a new and difficult phase for the region as key Arab oil exporters and non-Arab Iran await the incoming U.S. administration, analysts say.

Several issues shadowed the Dec. 30-31 event, including Iran’s nuclear program and accusations of Iranian interference in the region’s affairs. But there were also divisions among Iran’s Arab neighbors about how strict or lenient to be with Tehran.

“I believe there are red lines that all GCC countries agree on,” said Mustafa al-Ani, a political analyst at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center. “There is a consensus that Iran shouldn´t come out as a nuclear power. But how to deal with it is the issue. … Is it a regional problem or an international one?”

Apart from the summit, four GCC members - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - along with Jordan,Iraq and Egypt - met last month in New York with the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany to discuss Iran strategy. Oman and Qatar did not take part for fear of being seen as part of an anti-Iran alliance.

“All the Arab Gulf countries are in a very sensitive situation” in dealing with Iran, Saudi political science professor Waheed Hamza Hashem said.

Mr. Hashem, from King Abdel Aziz University in Jidda, said Shi’ite Muslim Iran’s relations with Sunni Muslim-dominated Gulf countries differ, depending on the size, influence and geographic location of the Gulf states.

For example, Iran has a security agreement with Bahrain, which has a large Shi’ite population. It also enjoys good relations with Qatar and close economic ties with the UAE, home to many Iranian expatriates.

But Iran and the UAE are at odds over three strategic islands that both claim and Iran controls: Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tumbs.

“With Saudi Arabia, there is a combination of security obsession, lack of trust, competition and mutual fears,” Mr. Hashem said. “It matters to Iran not to see Saudi Arabia take the side of the West against it. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia doesn´t want its relations with Iran to go back to the animosity that dominated the ‘80s and ‘90s,” he said.

Iranian-Saudi relations plummeted during those years over Saudi accusations of Iranian efforts to export its revolution to Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite minority. Iran, in turn, accused the Saudis of serving American interests and supporting Iraq in an eight-year war with Iran. Diplomatic relations were cut in 1988 but resumed in 1991.

In the aftermath of the U.S. toppling of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated government in 2003, a number of issues still loom over Iranian-Gulf Arab relations, including “Persian influence, increasing Shi’ite influence, Iran’s attempt to dominate the region” and even the name of the Gulf - whether it is the Persian Gulf or Arabian Gulf - as well as the islands dispute with the UAE, Mr. Hashem said.

Gulf officials have urged Iran to resolve the islands issue, but Iran has refused international arbitration.

The controversy over Iran´s nuclear program has been the “final straw,” Mr. Hashem said.

Yet none of the Arab countries seeks a military confrontation with Iran as a solution to a nuclear program that Iran insists is for peaceful purposes but its neighbors worry would give it the ability to make weapons.

Arab countries fear an attack on Iran would provoke Iranian attacks against U.S. interests in territory ruled by the United States’ Gulf allies. Gulf Arab countries also are doubtful that Western countries would defend them in case of Iranian attacks.

“They don´t like to see any military confrontation in the region,” Iranian political analyst Saeed Laylaz said, adding that the countries are close to each other, and any military action would have an impact on the economy, stability and security of the whole region.

At the same time, he said, the Arab countries “don´t like to see a very big Iran, a very strong Iran.”

Mr. al-Ani of Dubai’s Gulf Research Center said Arab Gulf countries hope that “strengthening political, economic and diplomatic relations with Iran would make Tehran take into consideration the Gulf’s position.”

The GCC countries will implement U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran. But they are lukewarm toward unilateral U.S. sanctions, although some banks in Arab countries have cut back their ties with Iranian banks on their own, Mr. al-Ani said.

Meanwhile, countries in the region are awaiting the new U.S. administration, hoping that a U.S. policy of engagement will reduce Iran’s motivation to push its neighbors around.

“I believe the Gulf Arab countries will have a clear and defined position when the American diplomacy towards Iran becomes clear,” Qatari political analyst Mohammed Saleh Missfer said. “Because even U.S. diplomacy is changing between containing and cooperating.”

Arab Gulf countries and Iran have reached “interdependence, where they will all lose or all turn out to be winners,” Mr. Hashem said. “The issue is, who is going to win more.”

• Jumana al-Tamimi is associate editor at the Gulf News newspaper, published in Dubai.

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