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Middle East: Iran, Gulf States Differ On Regional Security

This week's visit by Iran's defense minister to Saudi Arabia is the latest round in efforts by both Tehran and the Arab Gulf states to work together on building regional security. But the two sides regard the issue very differently. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel talks to an expert about what such cooperation means to Iran and its neighbors.

Prague, 28 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Ali Shamkhani's visit to Saudi Arabia this week -- the first by an Iranian defense minister since the Islamic Revolution -- has featured repeated calls by both sides for improving regional security.

But even as the two countries stress their desire for closer cooperation, they remain far apart on what kinds of security relations they want.

RFE/RL asked Shahram Chubin, an expert on Gulf issues at the Center for Security Policy in Geneva, Switzerland, to assess the differences.

Ever since President Mohammad Khatami was elected three years ago, Chubin says, Iran has been trying to build relations with the Arab Gulf states. Relations plummeted after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, in which the Arab Gulf states backed Baghdad. Chubin says Shamkhani's visit is part of the effort to repair those ties.

"The Iranians are thinking, long term, in terms of improving their relationships with all the Gulf states. They have good relations with some already, with Oman and Qatar particularly. And to do that, they need basically to enhance their bilateral relations with the major countries -- Saudi Arabia, of course, notably [as] the leader of the Gulf Cooperation Council -- and to the extent possible, to reduce the tendency of the Gulf Cooperation Council to take sides whenever Iran has a problem with one country or another."

The six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC, groups Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Chubin says Iran is trying to build confidence by ongoing exchanges of ministerial-level visits and by proposals that each country should notify the others of military exercises or invite observers to them. He says Iran's ultimate hope is that such cooperation will make the Arab Gulf states less dependent on the United States for their security, as Iran would like to see the U.S. presence in the Gulf reduced. Chubin:

"Iran hopes that this buildup of a relationship [with the Gulf states] will end up with a reduced dependence by the GCC on the United States for security. Iran has a common interest with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in containing Iraq, but its belief that the United States ought to withdraw from the Gulf is not shared by the GCC states."

But Chubin says that even if the two sides cannot agree over the U.S. presence in the Gulf, the Arab Gulf states nevertheless are eager to reach out to Iran for their own reasons. Chubin:

"The Gulf Cooperation Council states, particularly Saudi Arabia, do have an interest in normalizing relations with Iran. They don't see Iran as the threat it used to be, or even comparable to the threat that Iraq is, so they want to normalize their relations with Tehran, exchange diplomatic visits, have a normal dialogue, and build on areas they can cooperate on."

He says an important area in which the Arab Gulf states want to cooperate is cracking down on drug trafficking from Afghanistan through Central Asia and Iran to markets in the Arab Gulf states and Europe. He says the drug trafficking has helped fuel a boom in the number of middle-class drug addicts in both the Arab Gulf states and Iran. It also has created security problems for Iran, which is fighting a hot war against drug smugglers from Afghanistan.

As Iran and the Arab Gulf states explore building cooperation in such low-security issues as fighting drug trafficking and crime, they remain at odds over a territorial dispute pitting Tehran against the United Arab Emirates. Both claim three strategic and potentially oil-rich islands in the Gulf, known as Abu Musa and the Lesser and Greater Tunb islands. Iran has controlled the islands since 1971 after Britain ended its protectorate of the Emirates.

But Chubin says the issue of the islands -- in which the Emirates is supported by the GCC -- appears to be becoming less of a block to better relations over time.

"The UAE has tended to make this difference of view on the islands ... a barometer and the precondition for any improvement of relations between the GCC and Tehran. The other GCC countries, including Saudi Arabia, think that yes, it is a nuisance, it is an irritant, but it ought not to prevent improvement of relations. So there has been a certain amount of discord within the GCC on dealing with Iran."

The analyst says that while Iran and the Arab Gulf states now seem intent on building trust and cooperation between them, the Arab states still remain cautious about Iran in the long-run. He says they remain frightened by Iran's size -- which makes it a regional superpower -- and the earlier revolutionary fervor of the Islamic Republic.

"There are common interests to be built on, but the [Arab] Gulf states consider Iran to be a very large country, it has the whole of the northern littoral of the Gulf, its population is many times their combined populations. And they are concerned that Iran may eventually relapse into the sort of revolutionary excess and fervor that it showed in the early 1980s, which was characterized in foreign policy by interventionism and subversion in the Gulf states."

That means the Arab Gulf states are likely to feel their way forward very carefully even as both sides now appear to welcome cooperating on some low-security issues. And despite the regular shuttling of officials across the Gulf, they will remain cautious about Iran for the foreseeable future.