Courtesy New America Media, News analysis, Jalal Ghazi
Iranâ€™ President Ahmadinejad hugs UN General Assembly Chief dâ€™Escoto during an official meeting in Tehran March 9, 2009.
No single country can help Obama achieve his objectives in the Middle East more than Iran. It can help stabilize Iraq, which is crucial to the withdrawal of 100,000 American soldiers by 2010. It can establish alternative supply routes to Afghanistan instead of the ones provided in Pakistan, which are deemed unsafe. And, it can defuse both Hezbollah and Hamas.
Obamaâ€™s rapprochement with Iran, however, has unnerved Arab states. Already fearful of an expansionist Iran, they fear that the new American-Iranian relations may encourage Tehranâ€™s hardliners to pursue their nuclear ambitions more freely. They are also concerned that Iran will be emboldened to expand at the expense of small Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and, of course, Iraq.
Arab television stations, newspapers and Web sites no longer portray Israel as the primary threat in the Middle East, despite all the recent bloodshed in Gaza. Arab states, especially in the Gulf, find themselves facing more imminent and direct threat from its neighbor Iran.
The London-based Al Hayat newspaper ran an article by Saud Al Ris titled, â€œThe Greater Iranâ€ on Feb. 21. â€œUntil recently there was a lot of talk about the Zionist project of Greater Israel, however this is no longer possible,â€ he wrote in the article. â€œIsrael territorial ambitions were overwhelmed and it has withdrawn from territories it occupied in the past such as Sinai, South Lebanon and Gaza.â€
He added: â€œentering into a dialogue with the U.S., does not necessarily mean that Iran will give up its ambitions or change its policies. Iran is trying to gain more time so it can surprise the world one day with the announcement that it has nuclear weapons which will pave the way for Greater Iranâ€.
Mustafa Alani, at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center told the Jordan Times, â€œat the same time we have huge concerns that the Americans could give concessions to the Iranians which would undermine our security and be unacceptable to usâ€¦. Our basic demand is that America should not give concessions on the Iranian nuclear program and its interventions in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.â€
Iranian settlement activities in the Arab oil-rich region of Khusistan or Arabistan province, along the border with Iraq, have been equated with Israeli resettlement activities in the West Bank, according to the Al Arabiya website.
Farj Ismael and Naser Al Kabi wrote on the Al Arabia Web site on March 4 that, â€œMore than 5 million Arabs live in the region, their Arab identity are constantly under attack; they are subjected to raids, arrests and random executions; their homes are demolished with pretext that economic centers need to be built there and hundreds of thousands of them are being displaced.â€
Although the region provides Iran with 80 percent of its oil exports, the disfranchised population there suffers from 50 percent unemployment. Arabs comprise more than 66 percent of the population in the city of Ahwaz, but they only hold 5 percent of public offices there.
According to Al Arabiya Television, the Iranian government is resettling 500,000 non-Arabs in Khusistan province, shifting the demographic character of the region.
Ahwaz is not the only point of contention between Arab states and Iran.
The Arab News, the first English newspaper in Saudi Arabia, criticized the â€œrecent provocative statementâ€ by the Iranian conservative and high-level adviser, Ali Akber Nateq Nouri, who called Bahrain Iranâ€™s 14th province.
Nouriâ€™s and other Iranian officialsâ€™ statements generated a storm of condemnation among Arab states. The Gulf Cooperation Council was quick to respond. â€œStatements made from time to time by Iranian officials infringe on the sovereignty and independence of the Gulf states,â€ it said, â€œespecially Bahrain, and represent a flagrant aggression on the Arab identity of Bahrain.â€
Iran recently said that it respects the sovereignty of Bahrain. Its explanation, however, was not perceived as genuine by Arab states, especially when Iran continues to occupy three islands, including the strategic island of Abu Musa at the entrance of the Strait of Hormuz since Nov. 30, 1971. The islands belong to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Gulf Cooperation Council has repeatedly demanded that Iran return these Islands to the UAE, but Iran has refused.
Since 1992, Iran denied entry to the occupied islands to non-native Arab residents, including teachers and medical workers without acquiring an Iranian visa. Recently Iran opened government offices on these islands.
In response, the UAE has taken a major step to preempt Iranâ€™s occupation of the strategic island of Abu Musa at the entrance of the Strait of Hormuz. According to Al Arabiya, the UAE last month started the construction of a new port that will enable it to export 70 percent of its oil without having to go through the Strait of Hormuz. If oil pipelines are extended to the port from Saudi Arabia, Iraq and other Gulf States, it will become a vital oil exporting hub.
The head of the Gulf Research Center, Abdel Aziz Ben Saqer, told Al Arabiya, that the construction of this port, which will be completed in 2010, is a direct response to Iranâ€™s threats to shut down traffic through the Strait of Hormuz.
Indeed, the threat is now a common concern between Arab states and Israel, and therefore changed the way they view each other. Despite Israelâ€™s recent invasion of Gaza, Arab states have kept the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative alive.
The overwhelming force used by Iran in 1971 to take over the UAE islands escalated an arms race between Arab states and Iran. This arms race continues despite the global economic crisis. The Khaleej Times recently reported that â€œdespite a slump in oil prices, the UAE made record purchases at the Exhibition worth $18.4 billion (Dh) (almost $5 billion USD). The debate among defense analysts is that this particular trend of military bolstering by the UAE, of its strategic arms, is particularly directed against any possible threat from the Iranian side.â€
According to same source, the UAE also purchased the Patriot Missile Air Defense System from the United States last year, and it plans to obtain a missile defense shield system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD. The sale is likely to be approved by the U.S. Congress, which will make the UAE the first state after the United States to possess such a military capability. Other Gulf States are to follow suit since they share similar security threats.
Ironically, Israel, which traditionally opposed such weapons deals, is now looking the other way.