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Despite U.S. efforts, Persian Gulf allies are going their own way with Iran


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- As the United States moves to further isolate what it regards as the outlaw regime in Iran, it is finding it difficult to recruit to the cause those countries seemingly most directly threatened, the oil-rich Arab states on the Persian Gulf.

Out on what one Arab official calls "the front line" of potential confrontation with Tehran, the United States' allies in the Persian Gulf war -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates -- are pursuing their own policies on Iran, and not always in step with Washington.

The administration is responding with a campaign of diplomatic persuasion and by emphasizing the close military cooperation among the gulf states, the United States, Britain and France, according to diplomats and analysts in the region.

Few officials in Dubai dispute Iran's growing military strength and its potential for mischief-making in the gulf. Shipping sources in this trading capital, for example, cite a handful of hijackings of civilian ships by speedboats believed to be operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Nor is there much doubt about Iran's long-term ambitions of political, economic and military dominance in the region. If Iran can establish itself as the leading economic and military force in the region, it could then influence everything from resolution of numerous border disputes to oil production and pricing.

Nonetheless, there is some skepticism that the administration's policy of trade barriers and economic isolation is the best way to influence the Tehran government.

"Squeezing Iran, as well as Iraq, with their huge populations . . . will just mean . . . more poverty, and that means more political instability. The price that might have to be paid will be paid directly by us," said Kuwaiti economic consultant Jasem Sadoun.

Some of the gulf states continue to see Iraq as the greater threat. Others have economic incentives for maintaining good relations with Iran.

Despite the billions spent on arms since the gulf war, however, military sources say the gulf countries could not fight off a concentrated attack by Iran or Iraq without U.S. help.

The U.S. Navy generally keeps 15 to 20 ships in the region; the Air Force maintains a base in Saudi Arabia, and U.S. military equipment is positioned throughout the area.

Even with its strong relationship with the United States, however, Kuwait is pursuing a policy of detente with Iran. A Western diplomat said U.S. policy-makers have to be understanding about such initiatives, especially in Kuwait, which lies in the shadow of both Iraq and Iran.

"If you're at absolute dagger's point with one, you'd better be on good relations with the other," he said. "You don't want to be public enemy No. 1 in Tehran as well as Baghdad."

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