Gulf between Arab-Iran rivals grows stormy

AP News
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Posted: Apr 06, 2011 5:28 AM
Gulf between Arab-Iran rivals grows stormy

Inside a Kuwaiti palace, military brass hosted senior NATO envoys to discuss closer ties and possible joint naval maneuvers. At the same time in Tehran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was belittling the Western-allied Gulf states for casting Iran as a regional menace.

The contrasting events this week highlight much more than the Gulf's well-known tensions between Iran's regional ambitions and the close Gulf Arab bonds with Washington and other Western allies.

This is a lesson in the new tone of the Gulf after the jolt of the Middle East uprisings: louder, more confrontational and pulling the region's Western-backed militaries out of their long-standing background roles and into complicated conflicts in Bahrain and Libya.

The immediate message is that the Mideast upheavals have thrust the Gulf Arab rulers into self-preservation mode. But nearly all their key decisions also are shaped by long-range concerns about Iranian influence.

Now, a growing confidence and unity on how to confront Iran may be among the main policy shifts within the Gulf states after years of letting Washington take the lead, experts say.

"The Gulf will no longer be passive observers but active participants in regional events," said Mishaal al-Gargawi, a commentator on Gulf affairs based in Dubai.

Adding to the Gulf's new swagger is the concern _ led by heavyweight Saudi Arabia _ that Washington cannot be counted on to fully support the Gulf regimes against pro-reform protests and they need to protect the regional status quo on their own.

It was on display Sunday when the Gulf's main political bloc took a hard swipe at Iran. The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council said it was "deeply worried about continuing Iranian meddling" _ a jab that spans several countries.

Kuwait's leaders claim they have broken an Iranian-linked spy ring. Saudi authorities worry that Shiite powerhouse Iran could be urging pro-reform calls from the kingdom's Shiite minority.

In Bahrain, a Saudi-led military force moved in last month to aid the embattled Sunni dynasty against a Shiite-led revolt that Gulf authorities believe could open the door for Iranian sway. Iran has derided the Gulf force in Bahrain an "occupation."

"It's putting pressure on Iran by saying, the game has changed and we are here and the balance of power is different now," said al-Gargawi.

Jean-Francois Seznec, a Gulf specialist at Georgetown University in Washington, called the Bahrain military intervention a twin objective for Saudi Arabia and its partners. It was a rescue mission for a fellow Sunni regime and a "show of strength" directed at Iran.

In Tehran, the deputy head of Iran's powerful foreign policy commission claimed Wednesday that the Gulf regimes are using Iran as a scapegoat for their own failings.

"The dictators and authoritarians in the region have no idea who to blame," Hossein Ebrahimi was quoted by the Fars News Agency. "If anything happens in the region, the authoritarian regimes put the blame on Iran."

Iran's president also fired back Monday, describing the Gulf leaders as Western "lackeys" being manipulated into denouncing Iran and sending troops into Bahrain.

"We have extended the hand of friendship ... do not fall into the American trap," Ahmadinejad told a news conference that was broadcast on Iranian state television.

Instead, the Gulf states appear to increasingly be crafting their own agendas that closely follow Western goals. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have contributed warplanes to the international coalition striking Moammar Gadhafi's forces in Libya. The Gulf bloc also has offered mediate in the 2-month-old bloodshed in Yemen between rebels and the U.S.-backed president.

"What you are seeing is the Gulf being far more assertive on the foreign policy stage," said Theodore Karasik, a regional affairs expert at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. "This all carries a strong message to Iran _ both on the Arabian peninsula theater but also in Libya to show a wider reach and wider alliances."

In Kuwait, a delegation led by NATO's chief of the southern naval command, British Adm. Jonathan Westbrook, held talks Monday over closer cooperation and a possible joint naval exercises that would take ships close to Iranian waters. It would further cement Western military ties in a region that already hosts major U.S. air bases and the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

A Kuwait commentator, Nasser al-Mutairi, wrote Monday in the Alaan news website that the Gulf states must move beyond "routine protocol statements" to challenge Iran.

"We need measures that marginalize the role of Iran within the (Gulf) and reduce diplomatic representation," urged al-Mutairi.

Bahrain's state news agency went even further with its anti-Tehran barrage. The Bahrain News Agency claimed Gulf leaders have exposed "the whole conspiratorial scheme" by Iran to undermine the Arab monarchs and sheiks from Kuwait to Oman.

"The turmoil across the Middle East has changed the Gulf policies on Iran 180 degrees," said the Dubai analyst Karasik. "The Gulf leaders feel they are under threat and facing a whole new security environment. This harder line toward Iran is the new normal for the Gulf."

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Barbara Surk in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.