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MIDDLE EAST: GCC Countries Complicate US’ Iran Plans

Analysis by Meena Janardhan

DUBAI, Apr 16 2007 (IPS) - With members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) urging dialogue rather than war with Iran over its nuclear programme and reluctant to allow their territories to be used in any attack, Washington’s pressure tactics against Tehran appear to be faltering.

This reluctance is seen as one factor in the Islamic Republic’s defiant announcement, last week, of an expansion of its uranium enrichment programme to ‘industrial’ levels which, the West fears, is a step away from producing a nuclear bomb. Tehran has consistently denied a weapons component to its nuclear programme.

On Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a televised address from the city of Shiraz that Tehran ‘’will not retreat even one iota to preserve its nuclear right”. This was clearly a response to the United States’ warning that further United Nations Security Council sanctions would be brought to bear upon Iran.

But beyond sanctions it would be hard for the U.S. to contemplate military action against Iran because of a lack of support from such GCC countries as Qatar which played host to the U.S. Central Command during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

‘‘We will not participate by any means to harm Iran from Qatar,” first deputy premier and foreign minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabor Al-Thani said as far back as on Mar. 15. ‘‘Let us hope to solve this diplomatically and through peaceful means,” said Sheikh Hamad, who has since taken over as the premier.

Less than a fortnight later United Arab Emirates (UAE) President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan used the run-up to the Arab League summit in Riyadh to announce: ‘‘We have informed the Iranian brothers in a message carried recently by the foreign minister that we are not party to its conflict with the U.S. and will not allow our territories to be used for any military, security or intelligence activities against it.”

That announcement was not without misgivings. Prof. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla of the Emirates University, while appreciating the reconciliatory message to Iran, said: ‘‘As a follow up statement we should also make it clear that if we are attacked by Iran we will retaliate.”

Analysing the UAE and Qatar’s statements, Abdulla told IPS that the ‘’GCC countries are trying to do everything possible not to send wrong messages to Tehran. They feel that they should not antagonise Iran at a time when its role in the region seems to be gaining in strength”. The reference was clearly to Iran’s massive influence in the current politics of Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. The GCC comprises Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

‘‘This is not just a message to the Iranians but also to the U.S. that ‘you are on your own’,” Abdulla said. At another level, it is also a signal to ‘‘the public at large across the Arab world,” he added.

The issue of public opinion becomes relevant in the context of a Zogby International survey of six Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where only six percent of respondents thought Iran a major threat to their security. About 80 percent considered Israel and the U.S. as the two biggest external threats.

The results of the poll announced in February suggested that fewer than 25 percent Arabs wanted Iran to be pressured to halt its nuclear programme. In fact, about 60 percent said Tehran had the right to pursue the programme even if it was aimed at developing nuclear weapons.

‘‘Iran is a huge neighbour and we have been living in the same neighbourhood for centuries. We understand the positive and negative sides of the relationship and we have adapted very well to all the changing faces of Iran. We lived with Iran before and after the U.S. became a part of the equation, and we will continue to do so with or without the U.S., irrespective of whether Iran is a nuclear or non-nuclear power,” Abdulla explained.

That understanding was evident when Sheikh Khalifa – whose country has a running feud with Iran over the occupation of the Abu Mussa and Greater and Lesser Tunbs islands – said: ‘‘The UAE is an independent and sovereign state that rejects the use of its territories to attack any country, especially if it is a neighbour and Muslim.”

One of the likely reasons facilitating Doha’s soft approach could be the ample opportunities that Qatari and Iranian leaders have had in recent times to hold face-to-face discussions, especially on exploring the possibility of forming a ‘grouping’ of gas exporters, which gained momentum during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the Middle East in February.

Discussions at a 16-member Gas Producing Countries’ Forum in Doha during the second week of April focused on deepening cooperation aimed at creating a stable world market for the ‘fuel of the future’.

Among the other countries in the GCC bloc, Oman – which has the Straits of Hormuz separating it from Iran – has consistently urged negotiations and was the only country in the GCC bloc not to endorse the idea of the Gulf as a weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-free zone, aimed at ‘denuclearising’ Iran, during the GCC summit in Abu Dhabi in 2005.

Given the extent of Iran’s influence in the Middle East, energy-rich Saudi Arabia has resorted to engaging with Iran through dialogue to ensure that the situation does not deteriorate any more than it already has.

Ever since the nuclear issue turned into international one, Ahmadinejad, former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani and chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani have taken care to visit several GCC countries. Reciprocally, several Arab leaders from the Gulf, including the emir of Qatar and the UAE foreign minister, have visited Tehran in attempts de-escalate the tension.

Iran has made several positive gestures which could be the basis for dialogue in the future. At the Arab World Competitiveness Roundtable, held in Doha on Apr. 9-10, Iran proposed a 10-point plan for establishing a security and cooperation organisation in the Gulf region.

Due to the strategic importance of the Gulf and the need for building trust, security, stability, and sustainable development, it is necessary to devise a framework for security and economic cooperation in the region, said Hassan Rowhani, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies of Iran’s Expediency Council.

Proposed in Iran’s plan were: establishment of a Gulf Security and Cooperation Organisation that would include the six GCC members, Iran and Iraq; joint security arrangements and building trust between the regional countries concerning nuclear issues, including monitoring and verification of each others’ nuclear programmes in a voluntary and non-intrusive manner.

Also proposed were the establishment of a joint nuclear enrichment consortium among the regional countries for producing nuclear fuel and other peaceful uses of nuclear energy under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency and cooperation among regional countries for the establishment of a Middle East free of WMD.

However, this ‘constructive’ plan had ‘precondition’ – withdrawal of foreign military forces from the region. This implies that the U.S., the sole security guarantor for the six-member bloc, should pull out and this will never be acceptable to the GCC countries in the near future.

Yet, according to Abdulla of the Emirates University, ‘‘War is not the answer, unless it is a short and surgical one, which no one, including the U.S., can guarantee.”

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