By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 20, 2006
CAIRO -- Iran has embarked on a charm offensive in the Arab world aimed at expanding economic and political ties and circumventing efforts by the United States and its allies to isolate Iran over its nuclear program.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled this month to Kuwait, the first visit there by a high-ranking Iranian official in more than 25 years. Other Iranian officials toured Persian Gulf states trying to persuade them to endorse Iran's desire to develop nuclear technology, which U.S. officials have called a cover for building weapons. In mid-February, Iran's deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, Mohammad-Reza Baqeri, met in Mecca with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal in a bid to persuade the Saudis to coordinate stands on regional issues, according to reports from Tehran.
Iran also moved to shore up its longtime alliance with Syria, itself a target of U.S.-led isolation efforts. Iran and Syria signed preferential trade agreements and announced plans to lay an oil pipeline between the two countries, although a key section would have to pass through Iraq. During a recent meeting with Iranian officials in Damascus, Syrian Prime Minister Naji al-Otri publicly endorsed Iran's assertion of the right to develop nuclear technology, albeit for "peaceful purposes."
Across the Mediterranean, in Tunisia, officials pledged to increase trade, flights and tourism ties with Tehran.
The activity coincides with Iran's stated support for Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, which won a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament in January. Ahmadinejad has offered to fill gaps in the Palestinian Authority budget created by a withdrawal of international aid as Hamas takes over. The United States and many European governments consider Hamas a terrorist organization and have said it ought to be isolated until it recognizes Israel and forswears violence.
Arab observers say Iran's diplomatic offensive represents a newly vigorous approach to improving relations with its neighbors. "Iran is trying to become a player in the region. At least toward the Arabs, Iran is trying to moderate its tone," said Maha Altorki, an Iran analyst in the Asia section of the Arab League, based in Cairo, the Egyptian capital.
Altorki said Iran faces numerous obstacles in its campaign. Persian Gulf states closely allied with the United States are leery. Iran has laid claims to islands and undersea territory in the oil-rich gulf. During a meeting of Persian Gulf foreign ministers this month, Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, pointed out that Iran continues to occupy islands claimed by the UAE and called for their peaceful return.
Iran also faces suspicions about its long-term intentions. It is a majority Shiite Muslim country ruled under Islamic law as Iranian clerics define it, and that makes leaders of the predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab world wary that the Iranians will try to subvert their rule. Last year, Jordan's King Abdullah warned of an emerging "Shiite crescent" stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon, where Iran has long been a patron of the Hezbollah movement that fought the Israeli army.
Abdullah and Middle East observers have noted that the Bush administration boosted Iran's regional profile by toppling Saddam Hussein and effectively shifting power to Iraqi Shiite parties and militias that Tehran had hosted while they were in exile.
"I have a real problem with certain Iranian factions' political influence inside Iraq," Abdullah said in a published interview last year. "My concern is political, not religious -- revolving around Iran, Iran's political involvement inside Iraq, its relation with Syria and Hezbollah and the strengthening of this political-strategic alliance. This would create a scenario where you have these four -- Iran, Iran-influenced Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah -- [with] a strategic objective that could create a major conflict."
Not all Arab countries share such alarm, cautioned Wael al-Assad, director of the Arab League's Department of Multilateral Relations. "There is no single position in the Arab world toward Iran. In general, the closer a country is to Iran, the more worried it is," he said. "Of course, the collapse of Iraq and the rise of the Shiites make the situation more frightening to some."
The Arabs' position on Iran's nuclear program is complicated by their demand that the region should be free of nuclear weapons -- including Israel, which has long possessed a nuclear arsenal but never acknowledged it.
"We don't want Iran to have nuclear weapons. The difference with the U.S. approach is that we see it as a regional issue," Assad said. "We want a nuclear-free zone. We declare it is wrong for any country in the area to possess nuclear weapons. Otherwise there will be an arms race. The Americans handle it on a state-by-state basis."