Nervous Gulf stresses unity amid Iran tensions

AP News
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Posted: Dec 06, 2011 12:17 PM
Nervous Gulf stresses unity amid Iran tensions

It was a remark designed to send chills through Washington and its allies: an influential member of the Saudi royal family suggesting the kingdom could someday consider making its own atomic weapons if stuck between nuclear arsenals in Iran and Israel.

The comment at a Gulf security forum in Riyadh by Prince Turki al-Faisal _ who has served as intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States _ simply echoed Western fears about a runway arms race in the Middle East if Iran ever moves toward a nuclear warhead.

But it also reflects the hardening views among the Gulf Arab states that they must rely on themselves _ and not just Western protection _ as the showdowns with the Islamic Republic deepen.

In Kuwait, authorities are pressing ahead with several cases against alleged Iranian spies. Bahrain's rulers claim an Iran-linked cell sought to attack the Saudi Embassy and other key points.

The United Arab Emirates is close to finishing an oil pipeline that would connect directly to Indian Ocean shipping lanes and bypass the choke point of the Gulf's Strait of Hormuz, where Iran shares controls with Oman. The U.S., meanwhile, is proposing selling 600 "bunker-buster" bombs and other munitions to the UAE to counter what the Pentagon described as "current and future regional threats."

In meetings last week, Gulf envoys agreed to study proposals to pool their military forces into a region-wide command in an apparent reply to Iran's expanding land and sea powers.

"Iran represents the sum total of the fears for the Gulf leaders and they have decided they need to act decisively," said Theodore Karasik, a security expert at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

Few have pushed this point further than Prince Turki on Monday. He said that Iran's suspected quest for atomic weapons _ a claim Iran denies _ and Israel's presumed nuclear arsenal could force Saudi Arabia to follow suit. Most defense analysts believe Israel has nuclear weapons, but it has refused to either confirm or deny their existence.

"Therefore, it is our duty toward our nation and people to consider all possible options, including the possession of these weapons," Prince Turki was quoted as saying.

Gulf Arab states are desperate for Western help to derail Iran's nuclear advances. Iran, however, says it will never give up its nuclear program _ which it claims is only for power and research _ as a point of national pride and regional sway. That stance has likely only hardened as the Arab Spring uprisings threaten the regime in key ally Syria and as sanctions chip away at Iran's economy.

Gulf support, meanwhile, is considered critical for the West to help enforce stronger economic pressures on Iran following a report last month by the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency that the Islamic Republic conducted secret weapons-related tests and could be on the brink of developing an atomic weapon.

"(Gulf states) are terrified of Iran and they are determined to reinforce the notion in Washington and the West that Iran is the boogeyman," said Christopher Davidson, an expert on Gulf affairs at Britain's Durham University.

They need little help to sell that point these days.

Iran's relations with Britain are on life support after protesters in Tehran last week stormed the British Embassy and a compound for diplomatic workers. Other European nations _ including key Iranian trade partner Germany _ recalled their ambassadors in solidarity.

Iran shows no signs of easing its defiance, though.

Iranian state media said the country's powerful Revolutionary Guard has put itself on higher readiness. It's an apparent bit of bluster after Iranian forces claimed to have shot down an advanced U.S. surveillance drone near its eastern border with Afghanistan. It's unclear whether the wreckage of the RQ-170 craft _ if it's in Iranian hands _ could yield important information about its stealth systems or reconnaissance equipment.

Last month, Iran also claimed it arrested 12 "agents" with links to the CIA and Israel's Mossad spy agency. Officials have given no further details to back up the report. But it could signal stepped-up probes into suspected clandestine cells after a devastating Nov. 12 blast at a military site that killed at least 21 people, including Gen. Hasan Tehrani Moghaddam, who was in charge of the country's missile program.

Iran has called the explosion an accident, but that hasn't squelched widespread speculation of possible sabotage to set back Iran's missile program. Iran has already pointed its finger at alleged Israel and U.S. involvement in the slayings last year of at least two scientists involved in nuclear research.

For Gulf states, there is a growing sense that Iran's bravado masks some obvious worries about being an overall loser in the Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have led calls for Arab League pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad _ one of Tehran's most important allies in the region _ in response to his brutal crackdown on dissent.

"The situation in the region is not in Iran's favor," said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center. "So, for Iran, it may be time to remind the Gulf countries that Tehran is still capable of destabilizing the region."

Iran aimed one sharp warning at European-led proposals for trying to choke off Iran's oil exports. A statement this week from Iran's Foreign Ministry suggested crude oil prices could more than double to a record $250 a barrel if the flow was cut from OPEC's third-largest producer _ which supplies fast-growing China with about 10 percent of its current energy needs.

The Iranian threat did little to rattle markets. But the Gulf's oil security was clearly on the minds of officials at a major petroleum gathering this week in Qatar.

Qatar's emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, opened the conference Monday by trying to calm any jitters over growing friction with Iran.

"I want to point to the numerous assurances by oil and gas exporting countries of their commitment to maintain the flow of these two resources to the consumers, and to exert every effort to fulfill this especially during crises," he said.

Olivier Jakob, an oil analyst at Petromatrix in Switzerland, said even a substantial disruption of Iranian supplies _ such as through an EU-wide ban _ isn't likely to cause a massive spike in global oil prices.

"The talk of $250 a barrel, that's part of the usual noise created by Iran. It's not the first time," he said. "For that to happen, you need to have a worldwide ban," which is still far from becoming a reality, he added.

He noted that existing non-EU Iranian customers such as Turkey are unlikely to ban Iranian oil. Other Iranian supplies could shift to the Far East, particularly if Tehran decided to cut its prices significantly to entice non-Western customers.

"Those other countries can still take it. Then it's really a question of how much of a discount Iran is willing to take. ... At $110 a barrel Iran can give a pretty hefty discount," he said.

In Dubai, which has close trade ties with Iran, ruler Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum broke ranks somewhat with his Gulf allies by suggesting the world listen closer to Iran's claims about not seeking nuclear arms.

"I don't believe that Iran will be under the nuclear weapon ... I don't think so myself," he said in an interview with CNN broadcast Monday. What can Iran do with a nuclear weapon? For example, will they hit Israel? How many Palestinians will die? And you think ... if Iran hit Israel, their cities will be safe? They will be gone (the) next day."

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Associated Press writer Adam Schreck contributed to this report.