Arab countries caught between U.S., Iran

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Back in the spring, the Bush administration fashioned a new diplomatic approach to Iraq, pulling together a coalition of the moderate arc in the region. Under pressure from regional allies, it made a push for talks between Israelis and Palestinians. And, notably, it started talking to Iran, the first formal talks in 30 years, which were hailed as a breakthrough.

Now, the threat of Iran has become one of the reasons for having to stay in Iraq, and rather than engaging, the policy is to isolate both Iran and Syria. The rest of the region, tied up with Iraq's internal politics but fearful of spillover, is hedging its bets. While many of Iraq's Sunni neighbors fear Iran's increasing power, they find it politically difficult to cast their lot with an unpopular American administration.


"All of the neighbors are playing for position now," said Daniel Serwer, who worked with the Iraq Study Group and is now at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "They are driven by uncertainty."

The Bush administration, while touting what it said were the successes of its military surge in Iraq, insisted last week that its diplomatic approach to solving the conflict had not changed since the spring. But for various reasons, U.S. officials have found it difficult to achieve their goals of containing Iran's influence and rallying others in the region to help calm the violence.


Both President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this past week that the U.S. commitment to Iraq is important because it needs to guard against Iraq's "troublesome neighbors."

"And I would note that President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad said if the United States leaves Iraq, Iran is prepared to fill the vacuum," Rice said. "That is what is at stake here."

The U.S. is once again pushing for help from the U. N. and others. It has rallied support for a third United Nations resolution for increased sanctions against Iran, as well as to try moving its Arab allies away from Syria.

Next month, Rice will attend another ministerial-level conference of Iraq's neighbors in Istanbul. The U.N., which has a newly expanded mandate in Iraq, will also host a meeting Saturday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which it hopes will be attended by Iraq's neighboring countries.

Moderate Arab states in the region have been pulled in different directions, caught between their concern about increasing Iranian hegemony and their wariness of identifying too closely with the U.S. Saudi Arabia, which has held its own talks with Iran over Hezbollah and Lebanon, has - like many of the other Gulf Arab states - steadily distanced itself from Syria over the past year. However, the Saudis' domestic considerations have left it not ready to openly side with the U.S.

"The Americans have cried wolf way too many times," said one Arab diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The U.S. still plans to continue meeting with Iran, but from all accounts, the discussions between their respective ambassadors have become increasingly hostile.

In his testimony to Congress last week, Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, who met with the Iranians five years ago to ask their help in fighting terrorists in Afghanistan, said his recent meetings with them about Iraq have been far less productive.


"The impression I came away with after a couple of rounds is that the Iranians were interested simply in the appearance of discussions ... rather than actually doing serious business," he said.

Iran appears to be emboldened, feeling that its leverage with the Shiite political leadership in Iraq and other armed groups in the region gives it a say that it never had before.

However, while still continuing to talk to Iran, the Bush administration has never taken the military option off the table to attack Iran - and this scares some of the U.S.'s allies in the region.

"The problem is, the Gulf countries want the U.S. to stand up to Iran, but they don't want the U.S. to go to war with Iran, because they're sitting ducks for any kind of retaliation," said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In the coming months, the administration also wants to increase pressure on Syria to stop the flow of foreign fighters across its borders. U.S. officials emphasized this week that up to 80 percent of the suicide bombers in Iraq come through Syria and that the country appears not to require visas for young men coming into the country from elsewhere in the region.

"The Damascus airport is a hub of international terrorism, and it is unacceptable," said one senior administration official, who gave an interview only on the condition of anonymity. "There is almost unanimity on this point."


To this end, the U.S. will try to recruit some allies, such as the Saudis and the French, to join in a behind-the-scenes diplomatic push to isolate Syria.

But internal politics in Iraq could intervene. Al-Maliki visited both Tehran and Damascus in August, pledging to reopen a crude-oil pipeline that passes through Syria if the border between Syria and Iraq is secured.

The dynamics within Iraq could also affect the balance of power among its neighbors. One of the centerpieces of the administration's troop surge, touted in President Bush's speech Thursday, was to engage Sunni tribal sheiks in Anbar province to collaborate against al-Qaida in Iraq militants.

The strategy may have been seriously undermined by the assassination Thursday of a key Sunni leader who had been personally embraced by Bush on a visit to Iraq earlier this month. But the policy also was perceived as having the effect of driving Shiite political leaders closer to Iran.

"If the U.S. takes a step toward the Sunni tribes, the Shias run toward Iran; if it goes the other way, the Sunnis go to the Arab world for support and money," said Vali Nasr, a political science professor at Tufts University and author of the book, The Shia Revival. "This is still a zero-sum game."

Bay Fang writes for the Chicago Tribune.