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Gulf Arabs fear U.S.-Iran diplomacy at their expense

DUBAI (Reuters) - Gulf Arab states are beginning to worry that any U.S. rapprochement with Iran could ultimately lead to their worst nightmare -- a nuclear-armed, non-Arab, Shi’ite Muslim superpower in their neighborhood.

The U.S.-allied Sunni Gulf Arab states had little enthusiasm for former president George W. Bush’s hardline stance on Iran, fearing it could spill into a war that would engulf the region.

But equally they worry the offer of an improvement in U.S.-Iran ties held out by President Barack Obama could go too far by offering concessions to a powerful regional player they have long regarded with a mix of suspicion and hostility.

“We have no objection to Iranian-American negotiations. On the contrary, we encourage this kind of dialogue as a way of avoiding taking the region into military action,” said Mustafa Alani, at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.

“At the same time we have huge concerns that the Americans could give concessions to the Iranians which would undermine our security and be unacceptable to us,” he said.

Obama won the White House on a promise of change, naming a Middle East peace envoy in his first week in office and offering dialogue with Iran in a public effort to reach out to Muslims.

“Our basic demand is that America should not give concessions on the Iranian nuclear program and its interventions in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine...” Alani said.

“We should be a part of these negotiations. We don’t want any surprises. We need to be a partner and our interests need to be represented.”

Gulf Arabs, who warned against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, now fear the early withdrawal promised by Obama will leave that country in the hands of Iranian-allied Shi’ite politicians who have dominated the post-Saddam Hussein government.

They fear a U.S. administration that rules out military action will fail to curb Tehran’s nuclear program, and eventually leave Sunni Arabs squeezed between two non-Arab nuclear power centers -- Iran and Israel.

Gulf Arabs would view that outcome as little more than a reward for Tehran’s defiance of Washington and punishment for Gulf rulers who have endured public anger and Islamist violence to preserve their decades-old alliance with the United States.

“They are worried about a Sunni-Shi’ite split,” said one Western diplomat based in the Gulf. “They are beginning to reconsider their position with Syria. Can it be weaned away from Iran and brought back into the Arab fold?”

ARAB DIVISIONS

But while Gulf Arabs share fears that Washington could cut a deal with Tehran that puts Shi’ism at the heart of a new regional political order, they are split on how to handle the challenge.

Divisions came to the fore over Israel’s three-week offensive against Gaza that killed over 1,300 people and pit Saudi Arabia, Egypt and their allies on one side and Qatar, Iran, Syria and their allies on the other.

Qatar broke ranks with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arabs to host the leaders of Iran, Syria and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas at a conference to support Gaza. It used the forum to suspend its low-level ties with the Jewish state and call for the withdrawal of the 2002 Arab peace initiative.

The Saudi-sponsored initiative offers Israel normal relations with all Arab states in return for its full withdrawal from all Arab land occupied in the 1967 war and a just solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees.

Saudi King Abdullah was keen to insist that the offer was still on the table, though it would not remain there forever.

“The Iranians are able to pose as the champion of the Arabs whereas (those) who are trying to craft or support a solution that will bring peace and stability to the region, on a more moderate front, are being portrayed as stooges of the West,” said one Western diplomat based in the region.

“That is an uncomfortable position for them to be in ... They are saying time is running out; ‘we need to see progress on the Palestinian issue because the real bad guys are the Iranians and that’s who we fear most’.”

Analysts and diplomats say progress on the Arab-Israeli peace process would help pull the rug out from under the Iranians, whose allies in Lebanon and Gaza have emerged from recent wars with growing sympathy from ordinary Arabs and Muslims.

A peace deal between Israel and Syria, in particular, could prise the Syrians away from the Iranian camp and isolate it.

On that front, Obama’s decision to send an envoy to the Middle East immediately has been welcomed, though it remains to be seen if he will have what it takes to push Israel and the divided Palestinians to the negotiating table.

In the meantime, Qatar, which has carved out a role for itself as a mediator in internal conflicts from Lebanon to Yemen to, most recently, Darfur, hopes to reconcile Hamas with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction.

Analysts say Qatar’s overtures to Iran have yet to bear fruit though a more diplomatic U.S. approach to the Islamic Republic did not mean Obama would allow it to go nuclear.

So for all the talk of talks, a defiant Iran openly willing to flout U.N. resolutions may force the United States or its key ally Israel to resort to military action.

“Obama talking directly to the Iranians won’t change the strategic goal,” said the diplomat. “The U.S. is not suddenly willing to accommodate Iranian hegemony in the region, or a nuclear weapon.”

Additional reporting by Alistair Lyon in Saudi Arabia; editing by Myra MacDonald

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