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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

Iran's nuclear ambition may be a global issue, but nowhere is the concern felt more strongly than in the Persian Gulf among Iran's Arab neighbors. The Obama administration has tried to reassure the oil-rich Gulf states. It's offered to provide a defense umbrella against a nuclear Iran. But Arab leaders say that's too little too late, and that more should be done now to prevent Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons. As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from the United Arab Emirates, recent comments by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not help.

PETER KENYON: On a visit to Thailand, the secretary of state 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 administration wants Tehran to understand that gaining a nuclear weapon won't necessarily increase its influence.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): So we will still hold the door open, but we also have made it clear that we'll take actions, as I've said, you know, time and time again, crippling actions, working to upgrade the defense of our partners in the region.

KENYON: The White House quickly said the secretary of state was speaking for herself. But the comments raised eyebrows and anxiety levels among 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 the recent American 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 UAE.

Mr. MUSTAFA ALANI (Program Director, Security and Terrorism Studies, Gulf Research Center, Dubai): But, the question of the nuclear umbrella, again, for us have no meaning. For a very simple reason, this state is very small. If the Iranian attack happens, this state will disappear in five seconds, so what the umbrella going to do? I think 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 capability.

KENYON: Secretary 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. But among Gulf leaders who have risked alienating public opinion by hosting the U.S. military, 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, quote, "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 is what 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.

Mr. EMILE HOKAYEM (Political Editor, The National, Abu Dhabi): 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.

KENYON: Analysts say it's not that Arab states 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. Mustafa Alani, in Dubai, says Tehran is watching the same shift — and likes what it sees.

Mr. ALANI: 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.

KENYON: 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.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News in the United Arab Emirates.

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