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Opinion

Why U.S. strategy on Iran is crumbling

Gulf states no longer want to isolate Iran.

By Marc Lynch / January 4, 2008



Washington

'Everywhere you turn, it is the policy of Iran to foment instability and chaos," Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned Gulf dignitaries in Bahrain last month. But in reality, everywhere you turn, from Qatar to Saudi Arabia to Egypt, you now see Iranian leaders shattering longstanding taboos by meeting cordially with their Arab counterparts.

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The Gulf has moved away from American arguments for isolating Iran. American policymakers need to do the same.

The states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are accommodating themselves to Iran's growing weight in the region's politics. They remain key parts of America's security architecture in the region, hosting massive US military bases and underwriting the American economy in exchange for protection. But as Saudi analyst Khalid al-Dakheel argues, they are no longer content sitting passively beneath the US security umbrella and want to avoid being a pawn in the US-Iranian struggle for power. Flush with cash, they are not interested in a war that would mess up business.

That's why America's attempt to shore up containment against Iran increasingly seems to be yesterday's battle. On Dec. 3, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the GCC in Doha, Qatar. It was the first time an Iranian leader had addressed the alliance, which was formed in 1981 against the Iranian challenge.

Weeks later, Saudi King Abdullah invited Mr. Ahmadinejad to Saudi Arabia – the president's third visit in a year – for the hajj, or Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. The king used the occasion to hold cordial talks.

Iran is even reaching out to Egypt. Ali Larijani, head of Iran's National Security Council, visited Cairo recently for the highest level talks in 27 years. Afterward, Arab League chief Amr Moussa bluntly stated that there was no point in Arabs treating Iran as an enemy.

Gulf Arabs have thus visibly discarded the central pillar of the past year of America's Middle East strategy. Saudis and Egyptians had been the prime movers in anti-Iranian and anti-Shiite agitation. When they are inviting Ahmadinejad and Mr. Larijani to their capitals, America's talk of isolating Iran sounds outdated.

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