In announcing Secretary Clinton’s trip, the State Department said only that she would speak Feb. 14 at the US-Islamic World Forum, hosted by the Qatari government and the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center. Also, she will meet with Qatar’s emir and foreign minister. And in Saudi Arabia on Feb. 15-16, she will meet with King Abdullah bin Abdul al-Saud and Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.
But Iran and its muscle flexing across the Gulf region will be at the heart of the visit, Middle East experts say – as will US attempts to increase pressure on the Iranian regime over its continuing pursuit of nuclear capabilities.
“Iran will very much be front and center in Secretary Clinton’s visit,” says James Phillips, a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “That’s especially true because the Gulf countries, including those she’s visiting, are even more nervous than the US about the rise of Iran and its growing power.”
Clinton’s trip comes as the United States steps up its efforts to pressure Iran to curtail its nuclear ambitions and to contain Iran’s expanding military power in the region.
The US is pursuing a new United Nations Security Council resolution of economic sanctions against Iran, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates saying earlier this week that the US hopes to see approval of the resolution “within weeks.” At the same time, the Obama administration is accelerating a reinforcement of missile defenses in the Persian Gulf, which was initiated under President Bush.
Last month Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the US Central Command, spoke publicly of the deployment of American antimissile batteries, “two in each of four countries.” Although General Petraeus did not provide names, Qatar is known to be one of the countries to have accepted the missiles. Petraeus did say that the US is keeping Aegis cruisers, equipped with antimissile systems capable of intercepting medium-range missiles, on permanent patrol in the Persian Gulf.
Clinton is likely to do some indirect lobbying for the new Security Council resolution through her Arab interlocutors. Of the five Security Council countries with veto power over Council actions, only China remains publicly opposed to passing a new set of sanctions at this time.
When she met with her Chinese counterpart recently, Clinton emphasized what she called the short-term perspective of China’s current position, saying that China’s reluctance to move forward on sanctions was related to China’s close commercial relations with Iran. She called on China to think more in terms of its long-term interests in a stable Middle East.
Following up on that argument, Clinton will be looking to the Arabs to “act as a counterweight [to Iran] on China and help unlock its Security Council vote,” Mr. Phillips says.
“The US is hoping to use these discussions with the Arabs as a way to encourage China to look at its long-term economic interests,” Phillips adds. “The Arabs could let the Chinese know that it will hurt them economically with the Arab countries in the long run if China clings to this pro-Iran position.”
Clinton’s Gulf trip was announced even as the US Treasury Department took additional action against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps under existing US sanctions. As of Wednesday, the Treasury said, it was designating one IRGC general and four companies as proliferators of weapons of mass destruction.
“Today’s action exposing Khatam al-Anbiya subsidiaries will help firms worldwide avoid business that ultimately benefits the IRGC and its dangerous activities,” Stuart Levey, undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said in a statement Wednesday.
The Gulf countries already know firsthand about Iran’s “dangerous activities,” Phillips of Heritage says, so Clinton shouldn’t have to do a hard sell to get the Arabs on board in efforts to curtail Iran.
“Iran already pursues a long list of destabilizing activities in the region,” Phillips says, listing Iran’s support for extremist groups like Hezbollah, cases of it fomenting unrest among Shiite Muslim minorities in majority Sunni Muslim countries, and “strong suspicions” that Iran masterminded a coup attempt in Bahrain.
“If Iran ends up with a nuclear weapon, it will feel all the more freedom to act with impunity in the region, and things could get all the more dangerous in the Gulf,” Phillips says. “The Arabs already know that, but the US is hoping they can help convince China to get on board in deterring Iran.”
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