President Bush has come to the Gulf and gone, delivering stern messages in public and, reportedly, in private about the Iranian threat and the need for stiff, manly resolve (* see update below * ). Did he manage to sway the Gulf leaders who had previously appeared to be more in the mood to engage with and accomodate rising Iranian power? Today's Arab media offers some suggestive hints:
First, al-Jazeera reports that Iran intends to participate actively and fully in the upcoming 'neighbors conference' on Iraqi security to be hosted by Kuwait in April. While Iran also participated in the last round in Istanbul, the fact that this time the Iranians will be holding forth in a key American Gulf ally is striking. In a press conference in Tehran, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Mohammed Sabah al-Salem stressed that Kuwait's excellent relations with Iran did not contradict Bush's position, though they evidently declined to elaborate on this non-contradiction.
Meanwhile, the Saudi paper al-Sharq al-Awsat turns over part of its op-ed page to Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, whose call for more Arab-Iranian dialogue is pointedly at odds with the American message. Dabbagh writes that it is time to think seriously about Arab-Iranian dialogue based on national interests rather than on ideology or emotion, and tries to reassure Arab audiences that they have nothing to fear from a Shia-dominated Iraq. It is clear, he concludes, that the American view of the Iranian threat does not match the Arab view.
And in what must surely be a pure coincidence, Ghassan Cherbel - the editor of the other major Saudi-owned Arab paper al-Hayat - today pens a lengthy featured column exploring Iran's legitimate security fears and the reasons for its perception of threat. This attempt to understand Iranian perceptions and the role of the US in stoking its fears is, again, a bit off the American message. The Arabs have no interest in a frightened, defensive Iran, writes Cherbel, nor in Iran imposing its hegemony. The Arab interest is in Iran being a normal state with which the Arabs can do business and cooperate without the shadow of fear.
In the same issue of al-Hayat we can find a lengthy, approving survey of the Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement as well. Mubarak recently called for a peaceful solution of problems with Iran, and seems keen on exploring that relationship despite American entreaties.
So all told, on Iran issues the GCC and other key Arab states seem to be going right on exploring engagement with Iran despite the American sabre-rattling. Most analysts see Bush leaving empty-handed, with the savvy Egyptian political scientist Mohamed al-Sayid Said writing in the UAE paper al-Ittihad that Bush's completely fruitless visit to the region will likely go down in history as one of the strangest and most pointless visits to the Middle East of any world leader. For a more skeptical view of Gulf views on Iran, though, I recommend this piece by Neil Partrick writing from Dubai and, as ever, Greg Gause's views of Saudi calculations.
UPDATE: okay, okay emailers.. you got the joke. I admit it, this was indeed the "stiff, manly resolve" in question - can't get anything by you.