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Arab rulers unable to take bold action in Iranian nuclear dispute

CAIRO, Egypt—Don't expect any bold initiatives from Arab rulers in the escalating nuclear standoff with Iran: They're paralyzed by fear of the United States, fear of Iran and fear of their own citizens.

The countries with the most to lose from a regional arms race are saying the least about the issue as Arab nations with Sunni Muslim rulers weigh the triple threat the standoff brings: the prospect of a nuclear Shiite Muslim state, the regional ripple effect of a U.S. strike against Iran and unrest at home if Arab governments don't support the widespread public opinion that if Israel can pursue its nuclear ambitions, so can Iran.

As a result, most Arab rulers have distanced themselves from the fray, watching the crisis unfold as though viewing a movie.

"They have no initiatives, no direct contacts with the Iranians and they are behaving like the crisis is occurring in another region," said Mohamed Abdel Salam, a nuclear specialist at Cairo's Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "The United States has asked them to raise their voices, but they don't know how to do it. ... In the next few weeks, they'll find themselves in a critical situation and they'll have to make a move, one way or the other."

The governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency met Wednesday to lay the groundwork for sending Iran's case to the United Nations Security Council, which has the authority to impose sanctions unless Iran agrees to end or scale back its uranium-enrichment work. With the clock ticking on Tehran, the rest of the region is caught in the middle of the showdown between Western allies and a fellow Muslim country.

"Arab leaders feel absolutely terrified of the possibility of a major conflagration of this region," said Prince Hassan of Jordan, an influential figure in the Arab world and a board member of the independent Nuclear Threat Initiative, an international anti-nuclear war organization. Still, he said, they're too beholden to the United States for protection and aid to take a more active role in negotiating a solution. He's tried in vain to get Arab leaders to clarify their positions with a strongly worded joint statement.

"The minute you step out of private conversations, it's every man for himself," Prince Hassan said. "Nobody is prepared to talk regionally. It's a choice between MAD—mutually assured destruction—and MAS—mutually assured survival."

Most Middle Eastern governments simply parrot the Arab League's stance on the issue: a nuclear weapons-free region that includes Israel and Iran. Persian Gulf countries issued a mild statement in December calling for Iran to bring its nuclear program into compliance with international standards. But they came nowhere near the fiery language that the United States and the European Union use to describe Iran's case.

Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, issued a similarly tepid request for the United States to choose diplomacy over military intervention.

Even though Arab leaders privately share the West's concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions, public opinion at home muzzles them from expressing it.

"America's way of dealing with everyone as an emperor needs someone who pushes back and limits, even a little bit, America's arrogance," said Mohammed Habib, the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most influential Islamist group.

To many Arabs, that person is the enigmatic Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is praised for his provocative comments about American imperialism and the Western double standard of punishing the Islamic Republic while turning a blind eye to Israel's nuclear activities.

Arabs also side with Iran because of their anger over U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the profiling of Muslims in the war on terrorism and the recent controversy over European cartoons that lampooned Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

The popular support for Ahmadinejad's gamble is tempered only by Arabs' age-old suspicions of their Persian neighbors and tensions between the region's Sunnis and Shiites.

"You have mixed views on Ahmadinejad," said Mohamed Kamal, a senior political adviser in Egypt's ruling party. "Some people admire him. He speaks his mind; he dares to say these things. He has courage. Then there are other people who say he's a loose cannon, someone who doesn't calculate the impact of his statements."

Abdel Salam, the nuclear specialist, said Arab leaders would be forced off the fence as the crisis deepened in coming weeks. He said U.S. pressure to turn Arab regimes into negotiators could bring about solutions such as oil-rich Gulf nations pledging to invest in Iran in exchange for Tehran backing down on the nuclear issue. Egypt, he added, can contribute by offering to restore full diplomatic relations with Iran.

He said the U.S.-led pre-emptive strike in Iraq was proof to many that the Bush administration had the will to back up its threats against Tehran. Arab leaders, who recall Iran's vicious eight-year war with Iraq, have no doubt that the Islamic Republic is prepared to respond in kind.

"The best they can hope is that the Iranians don't answer in their countries," Abdel Salam said.


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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