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MIDEAST: US Overtures to Iran Must Wait – Analysts

Meena Janardhan

DUBAI, Mar 29 2009 (IPS) - While most countries in the world welcome Washington’s conciliatory message towards Iran, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are sceptical about an appropriate response from their neighbour.

Referring to U.S. President Barack Obama’s video message on the occasion of the Iranian New Year last week, Christian Koch of the Gulf Research Centre (GRC) said Washington’s opening to Iran is a step in the right direction, but Tehran is likely to once again miss the opportunity.

‘‘Obama’s gesture introduced the critical element of public diplomacy by addressing the people and leaders of Iran jointly, finally acknowledging that trying to drive a wedge between Iran’s leaders and people is unproductive,’’ Koch, director of international studies at the Dubai-based think tank, told IPS.

‘‘Unfortunately,’’ he added, ‘‘given the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s dismissal of the message means the likely result is the further isolation of Iran to the detriment of regional security.’’

In an attempt to end three decades of U.S.-Iran strain that has also affected other countries in the region, Obama stressed that his administration is committed to ‘‘diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues’’ and pursue ‘‘constructive ties among the U.S., Iran and the international community’’.

This process, he said, ‘‘will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect’’.

At the same time, the U.S. president indicated that ‘‘it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilisation’’.

However, Khamenei dismissed the overtures saying there will be no change unless Obama ends U.S. hostility toward Iran and ensures ‘real changes’ in foreign policy.

Iran has repeatedly sought U.S. apology for past grievances and an end to allegations that it is seeking to produce nuclear arms.

Such a reaction, according to Ali Jaber Al-Sabah, is symptomatic of Iran’s history of intransigence and closely linked to its nuclear programme, seen as a serious threat to the GCC bloc comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

‘‘The U.S. attempt to make a new beginning with Iran will yield the same old results – defiance and non-cooperation. Iran will never abandon its nuclear programme,’’ the Kuwait-based political analyst told IPS.

Explaining the difference between the approaches adopted by the George Bush and Obama administrations, Al-Sabah said: ‘‘While the means are different, the end is the same. Just as Obama made a video address, it is possible that he would make a similar speech sooner or later announcing a real ‘action’ plan in response to Tehran’s inflexibility.’’

GRC’s Koch said: ‘’The past few years have made it clear that the current leadership in Tehran is not interested in true negotiations. Rather, its sole objective is to buy time to avoid making any concessions on the nuclear front. Ultimately, this is a dead-end road.’’

The international relations expert explained that ‘‘just as Gulf security cannot be accomplished without Iran, neither can it be constructed around an Iran that seeks to institutionalise its dominance over its neighbours. Any development in U.S.-Iran relations needs to be viewed within the larger context of regional Gulf security’’.

He added that Obama’s message is completely in line with the interests of the GCC countries. ‘‘There is no appetite in the Gulf for another conflict and the GCC leaders have consistently stressed on ties based on mutual respect and the non-interference in internal affairs.’’

But, Koch cited a number of examples that reflect Iran’s failure to take advantage of chances to build a constructive regional relationship – resolving the issue of the three islands of Abu Mussa and Greater and Lesser Tunbs with the UAE, failing to join the Saudi-proposed Arab peace initiative on the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as in adequate response to Riyadh’s proposal for a joint regional nuclear enrichment consortium.

Al-Sabah said: ‘’While talks just prolong the agony of the GCC countries, they still are an essential part of the process towards any end. Even if it is bound to fail, it lends credibility to subsequent action.’’

Debunking the ‘grand bargain’ theory of the U.S., possibly compromising on GCC interests and cooperating with Iran to stabilise Afghanistan and Iraq, the Kuwaiti analyst said that ‘‘while the U.S. interests in these two countries are short term, the relationship with the GCC countries is a long haul one because of the energy dynamic’’.

In an atmosphere of deep-rooted suspicion, while Iran’s aggressive military intent may be a lesser worry for now, the GCC countries are petrified about the possible impact of an environmental disaster.

Attempts at political rapprochement in the region have suffered periodic setbacks. In February, a member of Iran’s powerful Expediency Council was reported to have said that Bahrain used to be Iran’s 14th province. This was seen as questioning the kingdom’s sovereignty, triggering widespread condemnation in the Arab world.

However, Mehran Kamrava, director of the Centre for International and Regional Studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, is more optimistic.

‘‘Khamenei’s response seeking more concrete signs from Washington was carefully crafted and non-ideological. The next stage of improving the tense atmospherics will depend on the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections in June,’’ Kamrava told IPS.

‘‘Depending on the outcome of those elections, the Americans may initiate more concrete steps toward engaging Iran in a dialogue,” Kamrava said.

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