ANALYSIS-Iran report raises Arab
A U.S. intelligence report saying Iran halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003 has caught Washington's Gulf Arab allies off guard, analysts say, raising concern that U.S. pressure against Tehran could slacken.
Leaders of the Sunni-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting in Qatar this week avoided comment on the report.
Neil Partrick of the International Crisis Group said there was concern behind closed doors at the summit the report could signal a new direction in U.S. policy but he added President George W. Bush's rhetorical pressure will reassure them.
"The GCC states want a firm U.S. stance and are somewhat bewildered, having been urged by the U.S. to cut economic links and maintain a firm stance themselves for fear of Iran going nuclear," he said.
"None of this alters the GCC's fundamental strategic relationship with the U.S. or the sense of potential threat emanating from Iran, including in Iraq," he added.
The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate published Monday said Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons programme four years ago, but that Tehran was continuing to develop the technical means that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons.
"Of course the crisis is not over. The intelligence report was positive but not the end of the matter, especially given the American president's comments ... we are back to square one again," Sheikh Ahmed al-Fahd al Sabah, president of Kuwait's National Security Bureau, told Reuters.
Iran's president declared the report a victory over the United States and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran had been "somewhat vindicated". Bush vowed continued pressure on Iran.
Washington, backed by Western countries and Gulf Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, has led a diplomatic campaign against Tehran over the past year over a nuclear energy programme it said was a cover for developing nuclear weapons.
Iran has denied the charge, saying it has the right to enrich uranium to fulfil future energy needs.
DELICATE BALANCING ACT
Gulf Arab rulers have traditionally relied on U.S. military presence in the region for protection, and they have watched with alarm as U.S. prestige fell because of its Iraq invasion of 2003 while Iranian power rose.
They face a delicate balancing act, however, because of popular support in much of the Arab world for Iran for backing Islamist groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Some Gulf states with a Shi'ite population fear a backlash in case of a U.S. attack on Iran.
Saudi leaders backed the United States in its invasion of Iraq, despite making public statements to the contrary. Support for military action against Iran would require a carefully crafted public policy, analysts say.
"I don't think they will be concerned that Iran will be let off the hook in a meaningful way," a Western diplomat in Riyadh said. "They will view the Americans as being better informed on the issue while not shifting rhetoric."
Arab countries including Saudi Arabia agreed to attend a U.S. conference with Israel and Palestinian leaders last month which in part formed a front against Iranian influence.
Rochdi Younsi, an analyst with Eurasia Group, said the report would only stir further bad publicity on the street for the United States, while Arab leaders still hope for a strong U.S. line against Tehran.
"Middle Eastern public opinion has generally reacted with a mixture of relief and anger to the release of the National Intelligence Estimate," he said. "Gulf Arab states will remain particularly suspicious of Tehran's ambitions."
Saudi Arabia already faces pressure within the GCC to soften its line towards Iran, analysts and diplomats said. The body is a loose political and economic alliance also comprising Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman -- all U.S. allies with traditional ties to Iran.
Qatar surprised neighbours when it invited President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to this week's summit of a Gulf Arab body originally set up in 1981 to counter Iran's revolutionary expansionism.
"I have tried to fathom the reasons behind the invitation extended by various Gulf officials to Ahmadinejad without reaching any convincing conclusions," Saudi columnist Tariq Alhomayed wrote this week in Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat.
Younsi said smaller Gulf countries have begun to respond positively to Iran's greater weight in the region.
"While Saudi Arabia would like to maintain a unified bloc against Iran, smaller GCC states advocate the necessity of appeasing the regime in Tehran through a multitude of economic partnerships and shared political influence," he said.
"Iran's regional power has grown tremendously and it is now quite popular among various Arab Gulf populations." (Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas in Bahrain; editing by Samia Nakhoul)