March 29, 2008 / 2:36 PM / 11 years ago

Gaddafi says Arabs should not alienate Iran

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi urged fellow Arab leaders on Saturday to improve ties with non-Arab Iran, saying it was not in their interest to antagonize the Islamic republic.

“You have no escape from Iran. It is a neighbor and Muslim brother and it is not in your interest to be its enemy. We have no interest at all in turning Iran against us,” Gaddafi told an Arab summit meeting in Damascus.

A strengthening alliance between host Syria and Iran have deepened divisions in the run up to the summit, which is being attended by Iran’s foreign minister but shunned by pro-U.S. Arab leaders, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Tensions have also heightened in the region over Iran’s nuclear row with the West and Tehran’s alleged interference in Iraq and its backing of Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah group in its standoff with the pro-Western Lebanese government.

Gaddafi said Iran and the Arab world had historic relations that could not be ignored, with a sizeable Iranian minority in Gulf Arab countries.

He said the United Arab Emirates should seek international arbitration to solve a dispute with Iran over three Gulf islands which Tehran controls but are claimed by the UAE.

“Solve the issue peacefully,” Gaddafi said. “Are these islands the only thing we have lost? Arab dignity, Arab future and past have been lost.”

President George W. Bush tried to shore up Gulf Arab support against Iran during a visit to the region in January. But Gulf states, which share a strategic waterway crucial to world oil flows with Iran, expressed little public backing to Bush’s call.

Gaddafi said it was important for the summit to convene in Damascus despite a regional rift, adding that Arabs have failed to produce a meaningful union after decades of meetings.

“We are at crossroads. The Turks have their country, the Persians have Iran, the Arabs cannot prove their worth because they do not have a (unified) Arab state.”

Without a union, Gaddafi predicted Arab countries to turn into “spheres of influence, protectorates ...”

“The only thing that gathers us is this (summit) hall.”

Editing by Samia Nakhoul

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