Arabs fear fallout of nuclear conflict
Nervous Arab states fear a war in the Gulf but a nuclear-armed Iran is an even greater concernhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/jul/10/middleeast.iran
Ian Black, Middle East editor guardian.co.uk, Thursday July 10, 2008
Arab governments are deeply worried about the prospect of war between Iran and Israel and/or the US for the very good reason that several of them would be directly in the firing line if hostilities erupted. Any fallout could have devastating consequences.
Iranian retaliation against oilfields, refineries and desalination plants in the Gulf, especially in eastern Saudi Arabia, is an obvious worry. Tehran has gone on the record as threatening to close the Straits of Hormuz, the choke point for 40% of globally-traded oil, if it is attacked. Washington quickly insisted that it will not let that happen.
As the sabres rattled this week, Iran warned that it would strike at Tel Aviv and the US navy, though Revolutionary Guard Shehab missiles would find it difficult to distinguish between American and Arab targets: the US Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain; US Central Command in nearby Qatar and the US navy has long relied on docking facilities at Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates.
Even without the threat of war, Iran's Arab neighbours have long lived in fear of another Chernobyl: the Bushehr nuclear reactor, two miles from the Gulf coast, is closer to six Arab capitals (Kuwait, Riyadh, Manama, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Muscat) than it is to Tehran. Any nuclear accident would be an ecological disaster.
But the recent sniping has been ominous. "We are sandwiched between Iran on the one hand and Israel and the US on the other," said Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai. "We feel that we are going to be victims."
Abdullah Alshayji, a Kuwaiti analyst, agrees, describing the Gulf states as "feeling like helpless bystanders with little room to manoeuvre". War would be "a nightmare of epic proportions for the whole region," he said.
And Tehran is mistrusted in almost every Arab capital. None believe the insistent claim that it is interested only in civilian nuclear power and has no military ambitions. It is seen as working to establish its hegemony across the Middle East, setting the agenda through allies or "non-state" proxies such as Hizbullah and Hamas, confounding the US and Israel in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.
Syria, Iran's only Arab ally, is the glaring exception, maintaining a strategic relationship that dates back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Maverick Qatar, home to al-Jazeera as well as a huge US air base, has been careful to stay on good terms with Tehran, not least because of massive joint natural gas projects. Otherwise Arab states are united in their suspicion of the country they fervently hoped to see defeated by Saddam Hussein in his eight-year struggle against Ayatollah Khomeini. Historic Arab antipathy to Persians still runs very deep. And vice versa.
The sight of long-range Iranian missiles being launched into desert skies was a grim reminder of that war against Saddam. But Arabs already see Iran as the main beneficiary of the more recent conflict in Iraq, with the Sunnis defeated and marginalised by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad even if there are now signs of grudging acceptance that it is there to stay.
Public statements by Arab leaders make clear that they oppose military action by Israel or the United States. The six-member Gulf Cooperation Council has declared that it would not allow its territory to be used to attack Iran and even hosted Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at its summit late last year.
Saudi Arabia, where some military men are said to be privately advocating a hardline stance towards Iran, has chosen the path of accommodation rather than confrontation. King Abdullah made a symbolic public declaration of this policy last year when he invited Ahmadinejad to go on the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
Bahrain, just a few miles across the Gulf from Iran, has anxieties over so-called Iranian "sleeper cells" amongst its restive Shias - the majority of the population in the Sunni-ruled kingdom. But it too favours engagement and diplomacy and worries about conflict. The same is true of Kuwait, at the head of the Gulf.
Further afield, Jordan's King Abdullah, who coined the phrase "Shia crescent" to describe the alarming spread of Sunni-Shia sectarianism, warned recently that action against Iran would open a "Pandora's box". His recommendation: "Engage with the Iranians. A military strike in Iran will only solicit a reaction from Iran and Iranian proxies, and I don't think that we can live with any more conflicts in this part of the world."
Privately, things may be different: "If we have to choose between Iranian nuclear deterrence and intimidation, or accept military action as a solution, we'll accept military action," says Alani. "We in the Gulf can live with Iranian retaliation for a week or a month. That's manageable compared to the possibility that Iran will be a nuclear power."
Israel, waging an intensifying propaganda campaign over Iran - and seeking to coax Syria away from its alliance with Tehran - likes to claim that "moderate" Arab states would support an attack on Iran's nuclear installations, though passive acquiescence is not the same as active support.
"We would not be participants," Alani says of the Gulf states. "We would be beneficiaries. But no one will say this in public. We don't want premature confrontation because we still believe there is a margin for a diplomatic solution."
Still, there is no mistaking the anxiety in the region. "Perhaps the objective of Iran's frequent threats is to stir up fear amongst the Gulf states over the repercussions of any US strike against it so that they it turn may pressure Washington into preventing any military action," observed Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed in the Saudi-owned al-Sharq al-Awsat. "But this is having an opposite effect from the desired one."