Arab leaders in the Persian Gulf are reassessing their long-term security interests and needs in light of the United States arms sales to Iran. Aside from Iraq, those most directly threatened by any action that would strengthen Iran, are the oil rich Arab states that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. These states' proximity to Iran and their support for Iraq in the Gulf war, makes their fragile political structures vulnerable to any expansionist intentions Tehran may have.
These factors, Saudi analysts say, are leading the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members to rethink policy along the following lines:
GCC states see a need for greater military self-sufficiency and less dependence on Washington. The feeling is that if the US's overriding preoccupation in the region is to thwart the Soviet Union, as Washington claimed when justifying arms transfers to Iran, then further overtures to strategically important Iran are inevitable. Such moves, it is felt, would come at Arab expense.
Some GCC officials see a need to broaden the group's political base - to include the Soviet Union. Moscow already has relations with Kuwait, the UAE, and Oman - but maintains a resident ambassador only in Kuwait. Current problems with Washington strengthen those who wish to counterbalance the GCC's Western dependency by widening Soviet equities in the area. The Saudi oil minister's visit to Moscow last month reportedly included discussion of political and economic issues.
GCC states are more prone to seek their own modest accommodation with Iran where possible. Arab Gulf states supported Iran on oil quota and pricing policies late last year. And Saudi Arabia's King Fahd has publicly called for ``greater collaboration'' with Iran on petroleum and other issues.
The authority of the GCC as a whole may be strengthened - to streamline efforts to attain greater self-sufficiency in security and defense.
Member states are already vesting advisory responsibility in the GCC secretariat for some arms deals - most notably a potential purchase of 10 to 24 Lockheed P-3 Orion maritime-surveillance aircraft. Some officials welcome a further expansion of this function. Their hope is that emotional political reactions, typical of past arms sales to Saudi Arabia, will be avoided if the less-controversial GCC apparatus is conspicuously up front in negotiations.
The pragmatism represented by this thinking will hold as long as a stalemate on the ground remains between Tehran and Baghdad. Should the former gain permanent control of southern portions of Iraq, trends toward accommodation with Iran would be strongly reinforced.
The societies of Kuwait, Dubai, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia's eastern provinces include large Shiite Muslim communities that are seen as potentially sympathetic to Iran. Should Tehran actually conquer Iraqi territory as far south as the Kuwait border, the opportunities for Iranian-sponsored subversion would increase. Internal vulnerabilities are the Achilles heel of the Arab Gulf states.
Most experts doubt Iran has the military muscle or resolve to attack the GCC states physically, even should Iraq ultimately be defeated. But if it did so, presumably with an internal subversion campaign in Shiite areas, GCC states would require external help.
With the exception of Oman's early 1970s victory over rebels in its western province, the GCC states are untested in modern battle. True, the GCC states have a regular military manpower of about 145,000 with a fair smattering of sophisticated weapons. But much of the trained manpower in both combat and maintenance roles is foreign, with questionable commitment in time of war.
Washington recently announced sales of F-16 jets to Bahrain and armored personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, and moved fleet units into the Gulf area. These moves will reassure Gulf allies - partially. But Arab experts say the rebuilding of confidence after the Iran arms sale affair will take much, much longer.
The writer was a government official for two decades before becoming a consultant on international affairs.