Arab Distrust of Iran Gains Momentum

The Associated Press
Wednesday, May 3, 2006; 3:54 PM

CAIRO, Egypt -- The emir of Qatar, on a visit to Iran, referred to the Arab Gulf. Iran's president was quick to correct him: it's the Persian Gulf, he said.

The flap over the name of the body of water that separates them reflected the deep and growing disquiet among Iran's Arab neighbors over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Arab diplomats said the emir _ a U.S. ally _ went to Iran this week on a delicate, diplomatic mission and with a private message: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad needed to cool his rhetoric and cooperate with the international community.

The hard-line Iranian leader showed his distaste for the message in a goodbye ceremony _ pointedly reported Wednesday by Tehran radio _ with a hard jab, suggesting the Qatari leader was a Western lackey.

Iran takes pride that the Gulf is widely known by the country's ancient name, Persia, but Arabs bridle. They are eager to point out that six Arab countries but only one Persian land border the strategically important sea through which much of the world's oil supply must pass.

Attempting diplomatic niceties as he was saying goodbye, the emir, Sheik Hamad bin-Khalifa al-Thani, congratulated his host on Iran's fine soccer team and said he hoped it would bring pride to all the "Arab Persian Gulf" region during the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Not missing a beat, Ahmadinejad shot back:

"I believe you called it the Persian Gulf when you studied in school," he said in a pointed reference to the emir's education at Sandhurst Military Academy in England, once the colonial ruler of much of the Arab world.

Seemingly unfazed, the emir fired Monday's final volley: "By the way, the Gulf belongs to all."

Since Ahmadinejad's election last summer, Tehran's relations have significantly cooled with its oil- and gas-rich neighbors and are far chillier than in the days of his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, who promoted dialogue and close ties with Arab neighbors.

Most anxious are Arab countries that lie on the east side of the Arabian Peninsula, across the water from Iran. They are loosely joined in a political and economic alliance known as the Gulf Cooperation Council, and have begun expressing fears that Ahmadinejad could go too far in his strident drive for a nuclear program and Iranian nationalism.

They worry about deadly pollution should Iran suffer a nuclear accident and about possible Iranian retaliation against American military bases in Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain should the U.S. launch a pre-emptive strike. Other economic and political heavyweights in the group include Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

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