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Arab states realigned, yet volatile

Times Staff Writer

As she toured the Middle East this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke of a powerful trend that she said was suddenly making it easier for beleaguered America to find partners in the region.

Rising fear of extremism, she said, was causing a “realignment” that was drawing together moderate Arab governments in a way that would make it easier for the United States to contain Iran, mend Iraq and work for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Rice is right, say Middle East diplomats and regional experts, that anxiety about extremism -- especially as practiced by Shiite Muslims -- is making sometimes-balky Arab governments more willing to back U.S. goals.

Yet it’s not clear how far this cooperation will go, the observers say. And there is a danger, some add, that the same fear could lead these governments to promote extremism that would further inflame the region.

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Rice says the region has been stirred by the rising influence of Iran, the growing power of the Islamic militant organizations Hezbollah and Hamas, Syria’s support of these groups, and the sectarian forces tearing apart Iraq. Sunni-led governments fear that they will be put on the defensive against Shiites at home and in neighboring lands.

Last year’s war in Lebanon, which bolstered Hezbollah, and the election victory of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, have alarmed governments that often hung back when the U.S. tried to mobilize them.

One sign of the new attitude came Tuesday, when foreign ministers of eight Arab countries issued a joint communique signaling that they opposed terrorism and supported U.S. goals in Iraq. They urged steps to improve the lot of Iraq’s Sunni minority and limit Iranian involvement in the nation’s conflicts.

U.S. officials have been trying to build a new security alliance out of the group, composed of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Though the communique was considerably weaker than the Americans would have liked, it showed a willingness to take a public stand by countries that often have shrunk from doing so.

Playing down differences

Many of these governments have been in sharp conflict with the U.S. only recently over President Bush’s handling of the Iraq war and his calls for greater democracy in the Middle East. His administration also has drawn fire for Iran’s increased influence among Shiites in the region, for which some Arabs blame the American presence in Iraq. But now the Arab governments are publicly playing down their differences with the U.S.

“There is no doubt that some of our traditional friends in the Arab world, the Egyptian and Saudi regimes most particularly, have some of the same concerns that the Bush administration does,” notably Iran, said Nathan Brown, an expert in Arab politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

If the U.S. hopes to forge this shared concern into a real partnership, the Arab regimes will have to overlook recent differences with each other, and the Bush administration “will have to overlook the authoritarian nature of these regimes,” he said in an e-mail message.

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“I think this may be happening; the various leaders are downplaying the reasons they have misgivings about each other,” he said.

The administration wants this cooperation to generate support for its effort to contain Iran, and rein in its nuclear ambitions. It wants economic and political backing for Iraq. It also wants the Sunni governments to apply their influence with Sunni Iraqis, who feed the insurgency.

If Iran reacted by reducing the flow of oil, the U.S. might ask other producers in the Persian Gulf to make up the shortfall.

Yet it will be hard to paper over the diverging interests and the reluctance of these states to take too strong a stand for fear of angering their public by forming too close an alliance with the Bush administration.

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Key shift by Saudi Arabia

The U.S. wanted the new communique to deplore Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But that wording never found its way into the final document.

“The phenomenon the secretary is talking about is real,” said David Schenker, a former Pentagon Mideast specialist who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

He said the most important shift probably was that of Saudi Arabia. He noted reports that the Saudis, taking the Bush administration’s side, had convinced the British at one point not to reach out to Tehran.

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Even so, he said, “how far these scared Sunni governments will go to support U.S. initiatives is still an open question.”

The eight governments declared this week that they supported the American presence in the region, but they still worry that the Bush administration may pull back in the face of a political uproar at home. They worry too that Bush may be irreparably weakened by the Republican Party’s loss of control of Congress and his own approaching departure from office.

“They’re thinking, ‘Will the Americans be here for us?’ ” said a diplomat from one Middle Eastern country who spoke on condition of anonymity. “If it’s not, maybe you can’t afford to be on bad terms with Iran.”

And observers fear that some Sunni governments, unsure whether the Americans will prevail, also are lending support to Sunni extremists to hedge their bets and offset the Shiite ascendance.

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There have been widespread reports that Saudi Arabia has been funding Sunni extremists in Lebanon to offset the power of Hezbollah. Saudi officials have denied the reports.

Schenker said even officials in the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a strong U.S. ally, have taken steps that permit Sunni extremist groups to take root in the country.

James Dobbins, a former top U.S. diplomat now at Rand Corp., wrote this week in an op-ed article that he worried the U.S. was going too far to build an anti-Iranian regional coalition.

Writing in the International Herald Tribune, Dobbins took note of Bush’s recent tough language toward Iran and Syria, the U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf region and the president’s oft-repeated determination to deny Iran nuclear arms.

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With these moves, he said, “there is a growing danger that the current U.S.-Iranian confrontation could escalate in the coming months from harsh rhetoric and economic sanctions to military action.”

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paul.richter@latimes.com


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