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Arab leaders sweat Iran - Sunnis start to see Shiite state as a bigger threat than Israel (CHICAGO TRIBUNE OP-ED) By Frida Ghitis JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 10/08/06)Source: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chi-0610080031oct08,1,3411135.story CHICAGO TRIBUNE CHICAGO TRIBUNE Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
JERUSALEM -- When Israeli newspapers broke the news recently of a secret meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Saudi Arabian officials, not everyone was surprised at the revelation.

True, the two countries have no formal relations. The official enmity is such that Saudi law, as in most Arab states, forbids anyone with a passport bearing an Israeli stamp from entering the country.

Nonetheless, some Middle East observers have come to see the controversial meeting as a sign of a dramatic realignment in the region, one that could transform relationships between long-standing friends and enemies.

At the root of the change is Sunni Arabs´ fear of Shiite Iran. As a result, the traditional enemy of Arabs--Israel--could begin to build a subtle but powerful alliance with Sunni Muslim regimes in the Arab world.

Saudi officials promptly denied that a meeting took place, and Olmert said he did not meet with anyone "who should cause a sensation." But the denials proved unconvincing to those watching the rise of Iran.

"Every country in the Arab world, except Syria, has something to fear from Iran," said Ofra Bengio of Tel Aviv University´s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, whose fields of specialty include contemporary Middle East history.

With its growing influence in what is now Shiite-dominated Iraq, its nuclear program and a defiantly reinvigorated revolutionary regime, Iran may just be starting to keep Arab leaders awake at night.

Bengio describes a three-pronged threat from Tehran: ideological, political and strategic. Iran´s nuclear program, along with its sponsorship of armed militias such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Moqtada Sadr´s al-Mahdi Army in Iraq, poses a growing worry to Sunni- ruled countries that have long feared their restive Shiite minorities.

As a result, Sunni regimes in the Arab world, according to some observers, are beginning to see Iran, not Israel, as the country to fear.

This natural convergence of interests has the potential to recast the political landscape from the traditional one of Arabs versus Israelis that has dominated the Middle East since the late 1940s.

During the opening salvos of the Lebanon war, the Saudi regime and other Sunni governments in the Middle East gave us a glimpse into that dramatic realignment. In an unprecedented attack on the Arab side in a conflict against Israel, Saudi Arabia blamed Hezbollah´s raid into Israel and its capture of two Israeli soldiers as "irresponsible adventurism."

As the war dragged on and popular sentiment turned passionately pro- Hezbollah, the Saudis condemned Israel. Other Sunni regimes, such as those in Jordan and Egypt, criticized Israel but were careful to craft statements in solidarity with Lebanese civilians rather than in support of Iran-backed Hezbollah.

To be sure, it remains politically expedient to criticize Israel loudly. Behind the scenes, though, there is growing evidence that Iran is viewed as an emerging threat of enormous proportions.

If Tehran acquires nuclear weapons, that threat will grow even larger.

At the start of the U.S.-led war to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Jordan´s King Abdullah II warned about the dangers of a "Shiite crescent" from Beirut to Baghdad. Earlier this year, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak showed his hand, angering Shiites, when he said, "Most of the Shiites [in the Arab world] are loyal to Iran, and not to the countries they are living in."

Even in the media, a few are openly expressing the emerging fears over Iran´s designs.

In a recent opinion piece titled "For These Reasons We Fear Iran" in the pan-Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, the director of Al-Arabiya TV, Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed, argued that the most likely target of Iran´s nuclear weapons is the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf.

"It is incomprehensible that Iran will bomb Israel, which has a shield of missiles, tremendous firepower and nuclear weapons artillery sufficient to eradicate every city in Iran," he wrote. "This means that if this destructive weapon is used, the only option for a target is the Arab Gulf."

At the Dayan Center, Bengio said she wouldn´t be surprised if Arab countries at this moment are trying to persuade Washington to attack Iran´s nuclear facilities. She acknowledged that an American attack would produce a sharp reaction from the so-called Arab street. But she thinks Arab regimes believe they can handle the unrest, and that they would take that chance rather than see Iran continue to build political, military and ideological influence in the Arab back yard.

In case the U.S. does not take action, Sunni Arab nations are making contingency plans. Saudi Arabia has engaged in a huge military shopping spree, spending billions on American Black Hawk helicopters and armored vehicles, and negotiating billions more in purchases from France and Britain.

Egypt recently announced its intentions to pursue nuclear energy, a decision echoing Iran´s claim that its nuclear program seeks only to produce electricity.

The conflict in Lebanon was a wake-up call to many Arab countries about the danger they could face from the "Shiite Axis," according to published comments by Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

In the short term, the public voice of Arab politics will continue to castigate Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. Still, as Iran continues to strut its newfound influence on the international stage, and as its militias continue to boast of their great arsenals and ideological fervor, the regional realignment will continue to take shape. A not-so-secret meeting between an Israeli prime minister and Saudi officials looks like one of the first steps toward that transformation. ---------- Frida Ghitis writes about world affairs. (Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune 10/08/06)

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