Iran courting Arab countries to blunt U.S. hostility

CAIRO, Egypt — Iran is intensifying its efforts to win over its Arab neighbors with a campaign of high-level diplomatic visits, lucrative investment deals and a series of public statements that call for Muslim unity in the face of U.S. and Israeli "aggression" in the Middle East.

The goal, experts say, is to reassure Sunni Muslim leaders that they have nothing to fear from their Shiite Muslim neighbor's ascension as a regional power — and to make sure no Arab state backs a U.S. strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.

So far, the campaign has achieved mixed results: While Arab rulers publicly support stronger Arab-Persian ties, they still harbor deep-seated fears about Iran's long-term ambitions. They also face strong U.S. pressure to keep Tehran isolated.

"If the U.S. struck Iran, the Arab world would take a position of 'positive neutrality' — they would observe, but they wouldn't join because the Arabs know Iran's reaction could harm them in their own countries," said Mohamed el Said Abdel Mo'men, a professor of Iranian studies at Ain Shams University in Cairo. "They believe the Iranian threat, in its current size, is more manageable than it would be after a strike."

In the past week, when U.S. officials announced new economic sanctions against Tehran, Iranian officials made several trips to woo Arab governments and private investors.

They stood alongside Arab colleagues at a conference in Kuwait on Iraqi security. At a conference in Dubai, they hailed the United Arab Emirates as Iran's No. 1 trade partner and called for more foreign investment in Iran. In Cairo, they signed an agreement with Egypt to open a center to exchange medical expertise.

On Friday, the Iranian ambassador in Beirut met with Christian leader Amin Gemayel, a longtime rival of Iran's ally, Hezbollah.

In Tehran, Iranian officials welcomed prominent Shiite and Sunni clerics from throughout the Islamic world for a meeting on how to reduce sectarian tensions. The Iranian Foreign Ministry trumpeted an Arab League statement that supported Iranian-Arab dialogue and stressed that the showdown over Iran's nuclear program must be handled within the United Nations. Iranian officials also pledged to finance a housing program in Syria, which has been inundated with refugees from Iraq.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad extended his support to another regional player, Turkey, by cutting short an official visit to Armenia. The move was interpreted as support for Turkey's Muslim government as U.S. lawmakers pushed for a bill to recognize the Armenian genocide.

The Turkish foreign minister is due in Tehran on Saturday — another coup for Iran as the Bush administration seeks to dissuade Turkey from sending troops into northern Iraq to battle Kurdish militants. In August, Iran began firing artillery into Iraq to counteract what it said were Kurdish rebel groups that had launched attacks in Iran.

"Iran wants a Middle East that's Islamist, resisting the United States and is part-authoritarian and part-democratic. Now it's deciding what keys it needs to unlock the doors in the region," said Nevine Mossaad, an Iran specialist for the Arab League.

Iran appears to be focusing its diplomacy on a handful of states with strategic value: Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon and smaller, oil-rich Gulf Arab nations with significant Shiite Muslim communities. All those nations are allies of the United States, which has stepped up its campaign to ensure that Arab states don't get too close to Iran.

The United States has an edge: Arab leaders are wary of the regional sway Iran has gained from having a friendly Shiite Islamist government in Iraq and electoral victories by groups it supports in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon.

Still, confidence in the United States' ability to contain Iran is waning, and Arab leaders are concerned that if they wait too long to count Iran as any ally, they'll find themselves on the bad side of a burgeoning nuclear power whose leaders' Islamist rhetoric finds support among ordinary Arabs.

Arab fears "have been capitalized on by the United States and Israel, and, in a way, the Iranians are playing catch-up," said Trita Parsi, author of "Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States" and the president of the National Iranian-American Council, a Washington-based organization that advocates better Iranian-U.S. relations.

"The Iranians have to soften their edges and not project a threat to their Arab neighbors."

Winning better relations with Egypt, the only Arab state without full diplomatic relations with Iran, would be an especially sweet prize for Iran, though the prospects seem unlikely. Disputes over Egypt's peace agreement with Israel and Iran's public admiration for the assassins of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat remain stumbling blocks, to say nothing of pressure from the United States, which provides Egypt with more than $2 billion in aid annually.

"Egypt represents history and civilization. The Iranians speak about the Arabs and tribal leaders, but they consider Egypt a real state," said Mohamed el Said Idris, an Egyptian expert on Iran who publishes a monthly journal on Iranian issues. "They know Egypt is a central leader of the umma, the Muslim nation. They know that strong ties to Egypt means strong ties to the entire Arab world."

Elsewhere, Iran is working hard to turn enemies into allies. The meeting between the Iranian ambassador and Gemayel on Friday was a rare reaching-out to a group that's been a bitter opponent of Iran's traditional friend Hezbollah. The ambassador stressed that Iran had no interest in taking sides in Lebanon's presidential election, which pit the pro-U.S. Sunni Muslim government, which Gemayel supports, against a pro-Syrian coalition led by Hezbollah.

Despite tensions over disputed islands in the Persian Gulf, Iran also has made inroads with several smaller Gulf nations. In Bahrain, where a Sunni emir leads a majority-Shiite population, an Iranian expatriate community with deep pockets plays a critical role in the economy. The UAE has become an important conduit for Iranian imports in spite of U.S.-backed economic sanctions.

Ahmadinejad also has spoken of hopes to improve relations with Saudi Arabia, long Iran's rival, though talks have led to only limited cooperation on easing violence in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

Political observers caution, however, that trade and security pacts don't necessarily add up to Iran's success in courting Arab nations.

"There are still a lot of shadowy aspects of the Iranian policy in the region," said Abdel Mo'men. "The Iranians have a dream to return to their golden age, when they controlled half the world, and they believe they can repeat the experience. ...Many Arab states believe that by allowing economic ties with Iran, they can limit its political ambitions."

(McClatchy special correspondent Miret el Naggar contributed to this report.)