The emir of Qatar, on a visit to Iran, referred to the Arab Gulf. Iran’s president was quick to correct him: It’s the Persian Gulf, he said.
The flap over the name of the body of water that separates them reflected the deep and growing disquiet among Iran’s Arab neighbors over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Arab diplomats said the emir — a U.S. ally — went to Iran this week on a delicate, diplomatic mission and with a private message: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad needed to cool his rhetoric and cooperate with the international community.
The hard-line Iranian leader showed his distaste for the message in a goodbye ceremony — pointedly reported Wednesday by Tehran radio — with a hard jab, suggesting the Qatari leader was a Western lackey.
Iran takes pride that the gulf is widely known by the country’s ancient name, Persia, but Arabs bridle. They are eager to point out that six Arab countries but only one Persian land border the strategically important sea through which much of the world’s oil supply must pass.
Qatar makes nice, Iran fires back
Attempting diplomatic niceties as he was saying goodbye, the emir, Sheik Hamad bin-Khalifa al-Thani, congratulated his host on Iran’s fine soccer team and said he hoped it would bring pride to all the “Arab Persian Gulf” region during the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Not missing a beat, Ahmadinejad shot back:
“I believe you called it the Persian Gulf when you studied in school,” he said in a pointed reference to the emir’s education at Sandhurst Military Academy in England, once the colonial ruler of much of the Arab world.
Seemingly unfazed, the emir fired Monday’s final volley: “By the way, the gulf belongs to all.”
Since Ahmadinejad’s election last summer, Tehran’s relations have significantly cooled with its oil- and gas-rich neighbors, and are far chillier than in the days of his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, who promoted dialogue and close ties with Arab neighbors.
Different countries, different problems
Most anxious are Arab countries that lie on the east side of the Arabian Peninsula, across the water from Iran. They are loosely joined in a political and economic alliance known as the gulf Cooperation Council, and have begun expressing fears that Ahmadinejad could go too far in his strident drive for a nuclear program and Iranian nationalism.
They worry about deadly pollution should Iran suffer a nuclear accident and about possible Iranian retaliation against American military bases in Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain should the U.S. launch a pre-emptive strike. Other economic and political heavyweights in the group include Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
A sign of the unease showed itself in a front-page editorial this week in Kuwait’s Al-Siyassah daily. Iran, it said, was engaged in a “boyish politics.” The newspaper further declared that the Americans have the right to “guarantee the security of the (region’s) oil fields... and oil’s export routes.”
Kuwaitis, who allow the Americans to use their country as a forward supply base for the war in Iraq and from which the war was launched, owe the U.S. a deep debt for having driven Saddam Hussein’s soldiers from the oil-rich country in 1991.
Potential for civil strife
But Arab fears stretch beyond Iranian accidents or retaliation. There’s anxiety about possible civil strife between their ruling Sunni Muslim majorities and Shiite minorities and worry that the latter might side with Shiite Iran if the Americans were to attack. Bahrain — headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet — is the only Gulf Cooperation Council member with a Shiite majority.
Former GCC Secretary-General Abdullah Bishara recently wrote that gulf countries had been “hesitant, vague and wishy-washy” in response to Iran when the Arabs should have told Tehran “clearly and in public” that they rejected its behavior.
Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, of Emirates University, voiced similar criticism.
“Where is gulf diplomacy? Why are they shying away?” he asked in an interview. “They should reach out to Washington and Iran. ... If they were to go full speed, they might achieve something.”
Nuclear program at root of fears
The turmoil over Iran’s nuclear program, which is now before the U.N. Security Council, stems from concerns among the United States, Britain and France over Tehran’s intentions. After the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, declared in 2002 that Iran had been conducting secret nuclear activities for decades, Washington said it believed the country was trying to build a nuclear weapon. Britain, France, Germany and Japan have also voiced concern.
Iran has insisted it wants nothing beyond the technology to build and operate nuclear reactors to generate electricity. It claims it has that right, including the privilege of enriching uranium, under its membership in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Uranium enrichment has become the crux of the dispute. Iran says it will only increase the potency of uranium by 5 percent for use in reactors for power plants. Opponents fear it will take the process further and produce fuel for nuclear weapons.
The Security Council could impose sanctions on Iran, but with China and Russia opposed, such punishment seems unlikely.
In the meantime, the Arab countries that would feel the immediate impact of deepening chaos over the dispute are getting mixed signals from Iran.
Even as Ahmadinejad was upbraiding the Qatari emir, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani was in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, telling leaders the region’s concerns were “baseless” and inviting gulf states to mediate.
He was apparently trying to ease concerns raised last month when Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi warned his nation had “control over the biggest and most sensitive energy route of the world.”
His remarks were a clear threat that Iran might try to close the Strait of Hormuz and strangle off shipment of the Arabs’ economic life’s blood — oil — most of which must move through the Strait of Hormuz to reach world markets.