Gulf States Stuck Between U.S., Iran On Nuclear Issue

Wide: Hornet takes off from the USS Stennis in the Persian Gulf in 2007 i i

In this May 2007 photo, a F/A-18C Hornet takes off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in the central Persian Gulf. The carrier was part of major air and sea exercises by the U.S. military in the Gulf in June 2007, opposite the coast of Iran. Adam Jan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Adam Jan/AFP/Getty Images
Wide: Hornet takes off from the USS Stennis in the Persian Gulf in 2007

In this May 2007 photo, a F/A-18C Hornet takes off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in the central Persian Gulf. The carrier was part of major air and sea exercises by the U.S. military in the Gulf in June 2007, opposite the coast of Iran.

Adam Jan/AFP/Getty Images

Iran's leaders say the country's nuclear program exists only for the purpose of generating electricity. Western intelligence agencies say the Islamic republic aims to produce nuclear weapons and intimidate its neighbors. How close is Iran to getting the bomb? How might it be stopped? And what are the implications for the United States and the rest of the world if Iran succeeds? This week, NPR looks at Iran and its suspected nuclear weapons programs in a series.

Nowhere is the concern over Iran's nuclear ambition felt more strongly than among Iran's Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf region. Even as U.S. companies rush to sell Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf states an elaborate missile defense system, Arab leaders worry that the Obama administration will fail to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Recent comments by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn't help.

On a visit to Thailand, Clinton said if the U.S. "extends a defense umbrella over the region," Iran would not be able to dominate, even if it acquires a nuclear weapon. On a talk show in Bangkok, Clinton reiterated that the Obama administration wants Tehran to understand that gaining a nuclear weapon won't necessarily increase its influence.

"So we will still hold the door open, but we also have made it clear that we'll take actions, as I've said time and time again, crippling actions, working to upgrade the defense of our partners in the region," she said.

For Small States, Defense Umbrella Meaningless

The White House was quick to clarify that the secretary of state was speaking for herself.

But the comments raised eyebrows and anxiety levels among the leaders of Arab states that want Washington focused on preventing a nuclear Iran, not defending against it. These are the same Sunni Arab leaders who warned the Bush administration not to invade Iraq, because that would remove the main obstacle holding back Iran from spreading its Shiite revolution beyond its borders.

Mustafa Alani, program director for security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, says regional leaders are unhappy with Clinton's recent comments because they imply that Washington is already looking ahead to a day when Iran joins the nuclear club. The notion of a defense umbrella, he adds, is cold comfort for a tiny, wealthy state such as the United Arab Emirates.

"For a very simple reason: This state is very small. If the Iranian attack happens, this state will disappear in five seconds, so what is the umbrella going to do? I think an arms race is inevitable. I think a big state like Saudi Arabia — especially after losing Iraq as a counterbalance to Iran — they're going to be forced to go on their own in developing their [nuclear] capability," Alani says.

Clinton insisted she wasn't proposing anything specific, merely trying to impress upon Iran's leaders how serious Washington is about preventing them from gaining nuclear weapons.

Worry Over Alienating Iran Further

Some Gulf leaders have risked alienating public opinion by hosting the U.S. military. To these leaders, the Obama administration's wavering between offering to engage Tehran in dialogue and issuing vague threats on the nuclear issue is troubling.

Abdullah al-Shayji, professor of international relations at Kuwait University, wrote recently that the American offer of a defensive umbrella "took the [Gulf states] by surprise because if it comes to fruition, it means they will have to align themselves with the U.S. against Iran, something they do not want to do."

Emile Hokayem, political editor of Abu Dhabi's government-owned paper, The National, says this complicates America's challenge in the region: Iran's Arab neighbors are attempting to rein in Iran's ambitions while avoiding confrontation and maintaining a veneer of cordial relations.

"They prefer to live with the current ambiguity, where they know what to expect from the U.S. because of very high-level personalized diplomacy, and not announce anything formal that would further alienate Iran. They don't feel that they can afford very contentious relations with Iran. Washington may think otherwise, and this is where the real strategic debate is," Hokayem says.

Shifting Priorities

Analysts say Arab states do not doubt Washington's sincerity in opposing the Iranian nuclear program. But they see the administration's attention shifting away from Iraq and Iran, and toward Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Alani, of Dubai's Gulf Research Center, says Tehran is watching the same shift — and likes what it sees.

"I think the Iranian leadership now understands the new priority of the United States. They will work to make the U.S. sink deeper in Afghanistan, so the priority again will focus on Afghanistan," he says.

Meanwhile, the Sunni-led Arab states will keep a close eye on their own Shiite populations, particularly in Bahrain, where Shiite protests are a regular occurrence.

While they watch uneasily for signs of Iranian nuclear progress, the Saudis and Emiratis will continue to spend billions of dollars on ballistic missile defense systems. And both countries, plus Kuwait, are considering building nuclear power plants of their own.

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