THE Iranian revolution and subsequent war with Iraq destroyed the security calculations of the oil-rich Gulf Arab states as much as it did Washington's strategic plans. Today, cooperation among those states, as well as between them and the United States, has increased markedly, US specialists on the region agree.
``The US role in ending the Iranian threat of expansion and subversion gives us a much sounder footing with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council,'' says Paul Jabber, vice-president for Middle East Merchant Banking at Bankers Trust Company. ``Though they still try to maintain the appearance of distance, when you look closely, you see a whole new nature to US-GCC relations.'' The GCC includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.
``The atmosphere is quite good right now,'' says Joseph Twinam, a former senior US diplomat in the Gulf and currently a professor at the Citadel. ``But it will be hard to sustain.''
He and others say that the Bush administration will have to advance the Arab-Israeli peace process to prolong the current ``honeymoon'' with GCC states. It also must overcome congressional opposition to arms sales to Gulf Arabs and simultaneously build bilateral ties that go beyond such sales. Washington will also need to keep a balance between ties to the Arab and Iranian sides of the Gulf as the possibilities for ties with Tehran emerge, these specialists say.
The Bush administration begins with a base line of military, political, and economic cooperation unforeseen even three years ago, say informed US officials.
``When this all started, the little Gulf states and the US were not concerned with day-to-day security in the Gulf,'' says a ranking US government specialist on Arab affairs. ``But Iran's revolution shook that all up. It forced them and us to closely examine security needs and to see that they are intertwined.''
US specialists credit the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war with activating the GCC as a means of coordinating its members' political and security efforts. The US also began to more carefully hone its policies to meet the needs of the smaller Gulf states. Washington for the first time made a sustained effort to work with a number of the Gulf Arabs as partners in a common enterprise, say US officials who participated in the process.
Today, says a ranking US diplomat, there is ``a coming-of-age on the Arab side of the Gulf'' and excellent opportunities for the US to build a network to protect Western interests in the oil-rich region.
Gulf Arabs will be carefully watching how eagerly Washington pursues relations with Iran. ``It's in our interest that Iran not be isolated internationally,'' says a top Gulf Arab diplomat in Washington. ``We are normalizing our relations with Tehran, and you should, too. But we hope ties with Iran can be established without arms sales. You must be very careful to maintain the balance of power in the area.''
More broadly, this senior diplomat contends that history has proved wrong those US strategists who favor giving more weight to Iran because of its proximity to the Soviet Union. ``You need ties to all the power centers,'' he says.
Bilateral relations between the US and the Gulf Arab countries, however, also continue to be beset by the Arab-Israeli dispute. The US Congress continues to block arms sales to these countries because they support the Palestinian cause. This has had particularly sour results on US-Saudi relations.
For their part, the Gulf Arabs hesitate to cooperate more closely with the US because of its perceived pro-Israel bias. The new US-PLO dialogue has added to the current bloom in US-Arab relations, Mr. Twinam says. But it has also brought unrealistic expectations of what the US can deliver. US officials add that this has to be a two-way street. Saudi Arabia, for example, could catch up with the PLO by recognizing Israel's right to exist, they say.
The foundation of US-Saudi ties, a ranking official argues, must shift from one based largely on arms sales to cooperation on a range of common concerns.