Arabs see Iran growing bolder after U.S. report

Tehran likely to strengthen military, ties to radicals

December 06, 2007|By Jeffrey Fleishman | Jeffrey Fleishman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CAIRO, Egypt -- The dwindling possibility of a U.S. attack on Iran is changing the dynamics of Middle East politics and raising Arab concern that Tehran now feels emboldened to strengthen its military, increase support for Islamic radicals and exert more influence in the region's troubled countries.

Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations opposed military action against Iran's nuclear program. But they were privately relieved that Washington's threats kept Tehran preoccupied, despite its manipulation of politics in Iraq and Lebanon and its support of the militant Islamic group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The U.S. intelligence report released Monday, which said that Iran does not have an active nuclear weapons program, has eased international pressure for sanctions and invigorated the country's hard-liners.

This comes as the Arab world has been countering Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rhetoric and his government's influence over the presidential turmoil in Lebanon, politics in Syria and Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

The report did not allay Arab fears over Iran's nuclear intentions and its secretive program to enrich uranium.

Suspicion that Iran seeks to dominate the Persian Gulf has prompted some Middle East states - including Saudi Arabia, which Washington regards as the leading Arab voice - to increase their own military spending.

"There's no trust on the Arab side about Iran's intentions," said Christian Koch, research director for international studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. "There are concerns of Iran's nuclear program for military purposes. There are concerns about Iran's influence in Iraq, over the unsettled political situation in Lebanon and over the dispute regarding" Iran's occupation of three islands claimed by the United Arab Emirates.

Some in the region believe, however, that the U.S. report could soften the mistrust between Iran and its neighbors and lead to a degree of rapprochement. Nabil Abdel-Fattah, an analyst with the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said the report might help Tehran "widen the rift" between Washington and its Arab allies, who had feared that they would be retaliated against if the United States attacked Iran.

"The report sends assurances to the gulf countries and particularly to the Saudi kingdom," said Abdel-Fattah. "The gulf countries know that if the U.S. strikes Iran, they will turn into Iranian hostages."

The view across much of the Middle East is that Iran's defiance of the Bush administration was clever policy that was, at least temporarily, vindicated by U.S. intelligence. It is likely to further enhance the image of Ahmadinejad, whose popularity in the Arab street is rooted in belligerence toward the West, a quality many Arabs wish their own leaders would show more often.

Speaking in Iran yesterday, Ahmadinejad was quoted by the state news agency as saying that the U.S. report was a "final blow" to Iran's critics and was a clear message "that the Iranian people were on the right course."

"Today," he said, "Iran has turned to a nuclear country and all world countries have accepted this fact."

Many Middle East analysts believe the report signals that the U.S. is shifting away from its combative approach toward Tehran, which has bedeviled Washington's diplomatic and democracy-building efforts across the region.

"This report is a face-saving device for the U.S. It gives the U.S. administration a subtle way to backtrack on their stance regarding the Iranian nuclear issues," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment Middle East Center in Beirut.

"What we are seeing is not a change in the U.S. strategy of reshaping the Middle East but rather a change of tactics."

Jeffrey Fleishman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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