Arabs and Persians

March 08, 1991

Security against whom? When President Bush talks about building a new security arrangement in the Persian Gulf, the too-easy assumption in the West is that its purpose is the containment of Iraq.

Arab governments harbor no such illusions. As they look across the gulf at Iran, home of the Persians, they know where danger lies. The Iraqi army, having been shredded by the U.S.-led coalition, now lacks the heavy armor to threaten its neighbors soon again. Not so with Iran. No longer checkmated by Iraq, Iran is a regional colossus determined to play a role commensurate with its size, wealth and power.

The snap meeting this week of eight Arab foreign ministers, all members of the anti-Iraq coalition, to discuss Persian Gulf security was notable for the exclusion of Iran. As a result, sniffed the Tehran Times, it was "not to be taken seriously." You can be sure, however, that the Iranian government takes it very seriously indeed.

Consider the background: Seven of these eight Arab nations -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt and five small oil-rich gulf states -- sided with Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran. They financed it, too. Only Syria aligned itself with Tehran, proving that hatred toward contiguous Arabs can transcend tribal animosity toward the more distant Persians.

Now Syria occupies a pivotal position. The Arab nations that once criticized Syria's refusal to support Iraq did a turnabout when Saddam Hussein sent his legions storming into Kuwait. Today those same seven nations are counting on Syria to help protect them from Persian power.

Under the security plan hatched in Damascus, Syrian and Egyptian forces sustained by gulf oil money would be stationed as a peacekeeping force on the western (or Arab) side of the gulf. Their ostensible role would be to contain Iraq as the Americans, British and French pull out ground troops. But over the long run, the aim would be to discourage expansionism on the part of Persian fundamentalists across the waters. This is a feud that goes back centuries. Among its more recent manifestations have been clashes between Saudi authorities and Iranian pilgrims in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Syria, which has softened its stance toward the West and perhaps even toward Israel, still could mediate this potentially serious source of tension. The day after it hosted the Damascus conference of Arab nations, it received the Iranian vice president and stressed the importance of stability in the gulf.

All this is of great significance to the United States, with its postwar position of prestige and power in the gulf. The Arab plan is quite similar to the security aims of the Bush administration. Washington is still not reconciled with the Tehran government, and has no compelling reason to look after its interests. But if the goal is to keep the gulf calm and the oil flowing, the U.S. states will have to make sure that the recent intra-Arab conflict is not followed by another Arab-Persian struggle.

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