Iran loses ground in efforts to woo small Arab Gulf states. Qatar edges from neutrality to closer Saudi ties

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

An Iranian attempt to drive a wedge between Arab states of the Gulf has run into trouble in this quiet sheikhdom. Tehran has been trying to build support for its position in the Gulf conflict among the smaller Arab states that are members - along with Saudi Arabia - of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Iran has sent diplomatic delegations to several Gulf states pressing its view that foreign warships and forces should leave the Gulf, and that Gulf security should be the sole responsibility of the states in the region.

Among GCC members, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain have welcomed the introduction of foreign navies into the region and have taken a pro-United States stance. Oman, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar have been more reluctant to endorse US actions or the foreign military buildup.

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From Iran's point of view, Qatar, Oman, and the UAE offer an opportunity to undermine Saudi Arabia's efforts to build the GCC into an effective coalition that might one day be able to stand up to Iran in the region.

But Iran's efforts to woo the Qatari sheikhdom have been set back by two events: the violence in Mecca in late July - when Iranians clashed with Saudi Arabian security forces during the annual Muslim pilgrimage and over 400 people died - and Iran's missile attacks against Kuwait.

These events have nudged Qatar a little closer to Saudi Arabia - and a little further from Iran. As a result, some Gulf analysts say solidarity within the Saudi-led GCC has grown stronger.

``Three months ago I would have said Qatar was inclined to be more neutral, but now they are strengthening their ties with Saudi Arabia. GCC solidarity will be stronger than in the past,'' says a Doha-based diplomat.

And some observers say another significant shift has occurred in recent months: Qatari officials no longer privately oppose US and other foreign military efforts in the Gulf.

The issue of GCC solidarity is critical for the rich and militarily weak sheikhdoms as the Iran-Iraq war threatens to engulf the entire region in missile attacks, hit-and-run raids, and subversion.

The increasing level of Gulf violence has made it more difficult for Qatar to maintain its longtime policy of not offending any of its neighbors, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia.

It is a balancing act the Qataris have pursued with the commitment of a life-or-death struggle. For Qatar, sources say, it is a matter of survival.

``Qatar cannot act against the wishes of Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, Qatar does not want to provoke Iran. So they must be very, very careful,'' a diplomat says.

``Iran is our neighbor and someday there will be peace in the Gulf. We are looking for that day,'' a Qatari government official says. ``After the war ends, we don't want to have an enemy.''

With 14 French-built Mirage jetfighters, 13 small gunboats, and a male population estimated at 20,000 to 25,000, Qatar is in no position to anger Iran.

Despite GCC pledges that an attack against one member would be considered an attack against all, Qatari officials stress they prefer peaceful coexistence to joining a long list of nations with grudges against Iran.

Qatar's conservative approach to foreign affairs is a reflection, analysts say, of the conservative nature of the head of state, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani.

``Qatar has always kept a very low profile. They have always been quiet,'' an experienced diplomat says.

Last May, a Qatari freighter was attacked in the central Gulf by Iranian Revolutionary Guards and several crewmen were injured. The local papers covered the attack, but they never mentioned who carried it out - to avoid antagonizing Iran.

Qatar continues to be careful not to offend Iran, analysts say. They note Qatar's carefully worded statement expressing ``regret'' over the violence in Mecca, rather than the outright condemnation of Iran which came from many Arab leaders. And they point to Qatar's silence following Iranian missile attacks against Kuwait at a time when other Arab states were insisting Iran be dealt with harshly.

But as the war of words between Saudi Arabia and Iran has increased since the Mecca clash, so has pressure mounted for Qatari officials to take a stand for Arab honor against Iran.

``They feel pretty uncomfortable, especially after the Mecca incident,'' says a diplomat.

The Qataris are concerned, he adds, that they may be forced to choose between maintaining good diplomatic relations with Iran or jeopardizing their close ties to the Saudis.

This will certainly be the case if the Saudis continue to press for Arab states to break diplomatic relations with Tehran.

Analysts say it hasn't come to a critical point yet. But they add that if push comes to shove, officials in Doha will side with their Arab brothers in Riyadh.

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