Egypt and Saudi Arabia make new overtures to Iran

Are US Arab allies playing 'good cop' with Ahmadinejad to US 'bad cop'?

Iran is suddenly enjoying a thaw with its Arab neighbors – all close US allies – in the wake of a US intelligence report that judged Iran probably suspended its work on nuclear weapons four years ago.

Regional actors, in particular, are scrambling to engage Iran diplomatically, and analysts say they have the tacit approval of the Americans.

Egypt, a US ally and the only Arab state not to have full diplomatic relations with Iran, this week sent a high-level delegation to Tehran for the first time since that country's Islamic revolution in 1979. On Thursday, Russia said it would resume work on an Iranian civilian nuclear plant.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was invited by the Qatari emir to speak to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) earlier this month – the first time that has ever happened. On Wednesday, Iran announced that Saudi Arabia had invited Mr. Ahmedinejad to participate in the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, a first for an Iranian leader since the 1979 revolution.

"Qatar could not have invited Ahmedinejad to the GCC without an understanding with the Americans. I don't think Egypt would be sending a diplomat without some sort of green light either," says Emad Gad, an expert on regional politics at the Al Ahram Center, a government-linked think tank in Cairo. "All of this is part of a strategy, and I think it's an American strategy as well, to keep the freeze on the nuclear program while creating a friendlier climate."

The strategy that's now being crafted looks very similar to the one that US hawks felt was discredited before the American decision to invade Iraq: One of sanctions and limited diplomatic outreach, with only muted threats to use force.

Then, proponents of an invasion argued that Iraq's Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction in defiance of UN sanctions and that such measures were insufficient. While it turned out that Mr. Hussein had no such weapons, analysts like Mr. Gad argue that the US invasion of Iraq was decisive in prompting the Iranian's change of course.

"Iran's decision came in the autumn of 2003 ... at least six months after the occupation of Iraq. So the issue here is not sanctions, but the occupation, " he says. "If the [Bush administration] came to know that [Iran's nuclear weapons] program had resumed, then the policy would change again."

Indeed, while the thaw may be pegged to the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), there remain concerns. The US is pushing for stronger sanctions against Iran – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Iran a "danger" in an Associated Press interview Wednesday – and has the backing of Germany and France. These countries and others, particularly Iran's Arab neighbors, worry there's little difference between evidence of an active quest for nuclear weapons and a civilian nuclear program that could, at short notice, be turned in a military direction.

"Notwithstanding the latest elements, everyone is fully conscious of the fact that there is a will among the Iranian leaders to obtain nuclear weapons," said French President Nicolas Sarkozy Thursday, adding that he hopes for new sanctions against Iran. "Why should we renounce sanctions.... What made Iran budge so far has been sanctions and firmness."

Even some noted American hawks are saying the sanctions route is still the best bet. David Frum, a former speech writer for President George W. Bush, who is credited with coining the phrase "axis of evil," wrote in Canada's National Post this week that the NIE is a "foundational political fact that will make it politically impossible for the Bush Administration to launch a strike at Iran's nuclear facilities."

"The Western goal ... should be to drive a wedge between the regime and its disaffected population – in the way that the Reagan administration worked to isolate and discredit Eastern European communist regimes in the 1980s."

A Western diplomat in Cairo, who asks not to be identified, says that creating space for Iranian reformers to maneuver is one reason for the outreach from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He says the intent of their overtures is to show Iran that there are benefits to cooperation on the nuclear issue, while also creating an environment in which internal reformers in Iran are less likely to be branded tools of foreign powers.

"We'll be on a less threatening diplomatic track for a while now, as long as Ahmedinjad doesn't do anything inflammatory," says the diplomat.

Iran's state news agency described this Wednesday's meeting between Egyptian Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Dirar and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki as "constructive." Ahmedinejad urged a fast normalization of ties, and told reports that "I'm ready to go to Egypt."

Still, the last time Egypt and Iran nearly resumed ties, some four years ago, the effort foundered. Egypt sheltered the deposed Shah of Iran (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi), after the 1979 revolution. When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who took in the shah and made peace with Israel, was assassinated in 1981, the Iranian state named a major Tehran thoroughfare in honor of Khalid Islambouli, Mr. Sadat's killer.

Egypt had demanded the street be renamed as precondition for resuming ties. Iran agreed. But Ahmedinjad, then Tehran's mayor, never made the change.

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