Arabs Ready To Let Iran In From the Cold

But caution tempers Gulf states' willingness to allow Tehran a role in regional security

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE white stucco mansion, which housed Iran's Embassy until Egypt broke ties with Tehran four years ago, is suddenly astir with workers bearing pots of paint and office furniture: A new Iranian charge d'affaires is moving in. In Saudi Arabia, on Jiddah's Medina Road, the Persian rug shop is about to restock, permitted for the first time since 1987 to import carpets from Iran.

And in Kuwait, American firefighters battling in the blazing oil fields are getting ready to work alongside Iranian experts, who have just won a $100 million contract to help put out the flames.

All over the Middle East, Arab countries are cautiously responding to Iranian overtures. But while their governments say they are hopeful about Tehran's moves to come in from the cold, a heritage of religious, political, and historical rivalries weighs heavily on their outlook.

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"If the Iranians open their hand to us, we will open our heart to them," says a Saudi specialist on Gulf affairs, summing up sentiments shared by many in the Arab world. "We don't trust them, but we are ready to give them a chance." One sign of this is the arrival yesterday of Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, in Tehran to discuss future ties.

The gulf between Iran and the Arab world is more than a body of water, and Arabs and Persians have vied with one another for centuries. More recently, the Arab world rallied around Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran. Sunni Muslim countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia accused Tehran's Shiite regime of fomenting fundamentalist subversion.

But for Arab members of the coalition that waged war on Iraq earlier this year, Iran's studiously neutral stance was an encouraging sign. Now, as Gulf countries plan their future security arrangements, they are thinking of ways of giving Iran a role.

This new openness is welcome news to Syria, the only Arab country to back Iran against Iraq, despite President Hafez al-Assad's distaste for fundamentalism.

"Syria played a very important role in improving relations between Iran and the Gulf countries," says Mohammed Heir al-Wadi, editor of Tishreen, Syria's government-run daily. "You can-not do anything significant in that area without the Iranians, and if you ignore them, any political step is doomed to failure."

A role in future Gulf security is a central concern of Tehran's.

"The security of the Persian Gulf is the security of Iran," insists an Iranian diplomat in the region. "Is it reasonable that a security arrangement should be established for the Gulf without the participation of the biggest, most populous, most ancient, and most powerful country in the Gulf?"

Saudi Arabia is wary. Diplomatic relations - broken in 1988 after Saudi soldiers killed more than 600 rioting Iranian Shiite pilgrims in Mecca - were restored in March, and Iranians will be allowed to perform the hajj (pilgrimage) this month for the first time in four years. "How they behave on the hajj will be of critical importance," says a senior Saudi prince.

If all goes well, says Wahib Ghorab, Gulf affairs editor for the Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat, Iran's role in regional security will likely be based on "exchange of information, political cooperation, standing together against any danger. But I don't believe we will ever see any Iranian troops in any Gulf country."

THAT view is echoed in Syria by ruling party member Elias Najmeh. "Iran has a role in the protection of Gulf waters, for example," he says. "But Iran would never be asked to protect an Arab country."

The prospect of a greater Iranian role is causing some anxiety in Cairo, as Egypt pulls its troops out of Kuwait and out of a central role in Gulf security plans.

"Iran is intruding into the region in a way that competes with Egypt," says political analyst Mohammed Sid-Ahmed. "The Gulf countries have turned quite a bit to Iran as Egypt pulls out."

How far they will turn, though, remains unclear, and caution is the order of the day.

"You cannot change relations ...simply by kissing cheeks," warns a Saudi analyst. "It's not like turning a light on and off. It takes certain behavior from both sides to prove they won't go as far as they did in the past."

Tehran insists that its days of encouraging fundamentalists around the Arab world with guns and money are over. Although Iran's revolution has "spiritual and moral influence, there is no intention at all to interfere in the internal affairs" of neighbors, the Iranian diplomat promises.

If the Arabs believe that Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, head of the moderate faction, is sincere, says a Western diplomat "they will do what they can to keep the moderates in power" against any challenge from radical factions. Giving Iran a security role, he adds, would strengthen Mr. Rafsanjani's hand at home.

Still, there are concerns that internal tensions might distort Iran's tentative new direction.

"Rafsanjani will have some troublemakers," says the senior member of the Saudi royal family, "and we are worried that, as in the past, domestic factors will influence foreign policy."

Specifically, says a top Saudi businessman close to the palace, Riyadh worries that if Iraq were to be dismembered, the Shiite south would fall to Iranian influence, and Saudi Arabia would effectively have a border with them. "If Basra falls," he says, referring to the city where Iraqi troops put down a Shiite rebellion in April, "all bets are off."

Meanwhile, adds an Egyptian official, "things have to be developed, intentions have to be revealed. One has to be very careful in dealing with these new trends in Iranian foreign policy. If we can eliminate one threat to our region, why not? But this has to be seen over the next two or three years. It is the start of a process."

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