Contain Iran? Even US Allies See Tehran Too Big to Ignore

Summit of Islamic nations opens today in Iran, possibly marking a 'turning point.'

Perhaps the most potent symbol of Iran's reemergence in the Arab and Islamic world is the gold-embroidered tapestry on loan from Saudi Arabia for the eighth Islamic summit, which opens here today.

It usually hangs in spiritual splendor in the Muslim holy city of Mecca in western Saudi Arabia, toward which more than 1 billion Muslims worldwide address their prayers each day.

In the years since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution toppled the pro-West shah, Iran and US-allied Saudi Arabia have been at loggerheads.

But recent attempts at reconciliation - which are mirrored across the Islamic world - now have the Saudis sending warm signals and a top-level delegation to Tehran.

Even as Iran's star begins to rise, though, the flocking of leaders of some 55 Islamic states to Iran also reflects a broad failure of US policy in the region. Western and Islamic analysts alike blame what they see as Israel's deliberate undermining of the Arab-Israel peace process and Washington's lackluster efforts to pressure Israel.

The summit unites members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Founded in 1969, it meets every three years.

In contrast to the popularity of this gathering, few Arab states turned up at the US-led economic summit last month in Doha, Qatar, which Israel attended. US policy has sought to isolate Iran, calling it a "premier sponsor" of terrorism and lumping it together with Iraq as a target of "dual containment" and sanctions.

More than 20,000 US troops are deployed in the Persian Gulf to "protect" oil-rich sheikhdoms from "rogue" states Iran and Iraq.

But this policy has come under increasing local criticism. Iran has pursued friendly ties with its neighbors. And after Iran's May presidential elections, which moderate cleric Mohamed Khatami won by a landslide on promises of more personal freedom, Arab states are taking a fresh look at the once-vilified Islamic republic.

"It's a turning point for Iran; all of a sudden it is coming out of its chronic isolation," says Ibrahim Yazdi, head of the opposition Freedom Movement of Iran. "Iran is changing, and neighbors' attitudes toward Iran are changing."

The "before and after" is still evident in Tehran, where the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's orders to export the revolution in the 1980s emboldened radical Islamic movements throughout the region. The US is still called the "Great Satan," and American and Israeli flags are still burned.

Today fresh white banners strung up for the Islamic conference read: "Welcome to Iran, the land of peace, development, and stability." But at the airport, an aging yellow sign points to a more fervent period: "In future, Islam will destroy the Satanic sovereignty of the West."

Iran still officially calls for the "abolition" of Israel, and is the only country in the region that does not at least pay lip service to the US-led Arab-Israeli peace process. The one thing most leaders here agree upon, however, is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is responsible for the current peace impasse.

"The Islamic summit would be in great jeopardy if Netanyahu had not behaved in this way," says an Asian diplomat. "Iran has such bitter disputes with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt, but they've been driven together. Netanyahu is the source of this unity."

To Iran, the success of the Islamic summit is simply recognition of its increasing geopolitical importance since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Iran sees itself as the obvious route for Caspian and Central Asian oil and gas to reach the Persian Gulf.

Despite the threat of US sanctions, a consortium led by the French company Total signed a $2 billion deal earlier this year to develop an Iranian oil field.

"We don't want to provoke anyone, but we want to help improve the lives of our neighbors," says Ali Majedi, Iran's deputy oil and gas minister for the Caspian Sea. "We believe that rich neighbors will help the region to peace."

The Clinton administration has hinted at a possible rapprochement, and diplomats say the primary US and Iranian goals are the same: Gulf stability. Still, the White House said last month it would seek to thwart Central Asian plans to use Iran as a conduit for oil and gas by backing a hugely expensive new corridor that would bypass Iran.

And the Pentagon weighed in by purchasing 21 MiG-29 jet fighters from Moldova to keep them out of Iranian hands.

The apparent desperation of these policies, diplomats say, makes it easy for Iran to argue that, contrary to the US isolating Iran, it is the US that is isolated.

"Any policy toward Iran must take into account what is achievable," says a Western diplomat. "Despite US concerns, it's geography and economic position make Iran a factor you can't ignore."

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