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US Reassures Arab Countries on Iran Policy

05/08/09 By Meredith Buel, VOA, Washington

Top U.S. officials are reassuring moderate Arab countries that the Obama administration's effort to improve relations with Iran will not hurt the interests of longstanding American allies in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and some Persian Gulf countries. Moderate Arab nations are expressing concern that a new dialogue between the U.S. and Iran could come at their expense.

Middle East analysts say Washington's efforts to start a dialogue with Iran have sent ripples of alarm through the capitals of America's closest Arab allies, who are concerned Tehran is playing a destabilizing role in the region.

Patrick Clawson, a specialist on Iran with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Arab countries are concerned about any significant change in the strategic balance around the Persian Gulf.

"Those countries do not want to see the United States and Iran closely allied," said Patrick Clawson. "Those countries worry that the United States might regard Iran as the great strategic prize in the area.

In a recent statement, the oil-rich nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council expressed the hope that any dialogue between the United States and Iran would not, as the statement put it, "come at our expense."

Egypt has been increasingly vocal over its concerns about Iran following what it described as discovery of a Hezbollah cell plotting to destabilize the country.

The Iranian-backed group denied the accusations, but did confirm having an operative in Egypt supervising shipments to the Palestinian Hamas group in the Gaza Strip.

Egypt views Hezbollah and Hamas as proxies of Shi'ite-dominated Iran and is worried about what it sees as growing Iranian influence in the largely-Sunni Arab world.

On a recent trip to Cairo, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates sought to reassure Arab allies in the Middle East about the Obama administration's efforts to reach out to Tehran.

"What is important for our friends and partners here in the Middle East to be assured of is that the United States will be very open and transparent about these contacts, and we will keep our friends informed of what is going on so that nobody gets surprised," said Robert Gates.

In a rare confluence of interests with its Arab neighbors, Israel has also singled out Iran as the greatest threat to stability in the region.

U.S. Senator John Kerry, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says there is a major shift in the geopolitics of the Middle East.

"So there is a new reality - moderate Arab countries and Israel alike are actually more worried together about Iran than they are about each other," said John Kerry. "As a result, they are now cooperating in ways that were unimaginable just a couple of years ago."

Many nations have expressed considerable concern about Iran's nuclear and missile programs.

Israel and Persian Gulf countries have spent billions of dollars on Patriot anti-missile defense systems.

Middle East analyst Patrick Clawson says the United Arab Emirates has just agreed to spend $7 billion to purchase a much more sophisticated system from the United States.

"The UAE is the only country in the world that has expressed interest in having such an advanced system," he said. "All of this is designed to protect against potential Iranian missiles, so countries in the Gulf have been very concerned about the advances in Iran's missile program.

Some analysts have speculated the Obama administration may move quickly to change the relationship with Iran to create a so-called grand bargain by making concessions on Israeli and Arab security issues in return for an end to Tehran's nuclear program.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says any progress in relations will likely be slow to develop.

"Concerns out here of some kind of a grand bargain, developed in secret, are completely unrealistic, " he said.

Iran says its uranium enrichment operation is part of a peaceful nuclear program, but the United States and European countries believe it is at least partially weapons related.

In a change of U.S. policy, the Obama administration has agreed to participate in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and Iran says it is preparing a package of proposals.

Senator Kerry says if the talks are successful, it will benefit the entire region.

"The truth is that an international initiative to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is an essential building block of stability in the Middle East," he said. "If we succeed, Arab moderates will be stronger and Israel will be much more likely to take the risks for peace."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says if the outreach to Tehran fails, the United States is laying the foundation for new economic and political sanctions.

"We do have an intensive consultation effort going on with friends and like-minded nations, not only in the region, but elsewhere in the world concerning the threats that Iran poses, not only with its nuclear ambitions, but its interference with the internal affairs of many countries, its funding of terrorism and so much else that is deeply troubling," said Hillary Clinton. "We believe that our outreach and our consultation lay the groundwork for tougher international sanctions."

The U.N. Security Council has approved several sanctions resolutions against Iran because of its defiance of demands for transparency regarding its nuclear program.

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