Gulf Arab States Share Israel's Fears Over Iran's Nuclear Program

Among the many alliances of convenience in the Middle East, one is so unusual that the partners can barely hint about it publicly: Israel and the Gulf Arab states linked by shared fears over Iran's nuclear program.

While their deeper disputes on the Palestinians effectively block any strategic breakthroughs, the recent warnings from Israel and the West about military options against Iran invariably draw in the Gulf and its rare meeting of minds with Jerusalem.

The Gulf states -- a cornerstone for U.S. diplomatic and military pressure on Iran -- are indispensable parts of any effort to confront Tehran's nuclear ambitions. And even Israel, which has no direct diplomatic outreach to the Gulf, is likely brought into the Gulf-centric policymaking with U.S. envoys acting as go-betweens, experts say.

"I would be surprised if there is no knowledge about the Saudi positions (in Israel) or knowledge in Saudi of the Israeli positions," said David Menashri, director of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University.

It's part of a complicated mix of mutual worries and divergent risks -- the Gulf, unlike Israel, has critical commercial and diplomatic ties with Iran -- that puts Washington in the middle as the common ally and chief Western architect of pressure tactics on Iran.

The next moves are expected after the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency releases an intelligence report Tuesday to its 35 board members.

Early leaks from diplomats suggest the document will indicate Iran has made computer models of a nuclear warhead and conducted other weapons-related work, which would strongly reinforce suspicions that Iran is working toward atomic weapons. Iran denies it seeks to develop nuclear arms and claims its program, including uranium enrichment labs, is only for energy and research.

In response to the reports last week, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi accused the International Atomic Energy Agency of giving in to U.S. pressure to level the accusations, which he said were based on fabricated intelligence.

"Iran has already responded to the alleged studies in 117 pages. We've said time and again that these are forgeries similar to faked notes," Salehi told reporters in Tehran.

For the moment, the speculation of an increased threat of military strikes is based on tougher comments by Israel and the West in advance of the IAEA report.

In the latest statement, Israeli President Shimon Peres said "the possibility of a military strike on Iran is more likely to be realized than the diplomatic option."

Peres told the Yisrael Hayom newspaper that Israel must carefully weight all alternatives. "I do not think there has already been a decision on the matter, but it appears that Iran is getting closer to obtaining nuclear weapons," he said in comments published Sunday.

There is no apparent build up or operational changes at bases in the region, which for the U.S. include air wings scattered across the Gulf and the 5th Fleet naval hub in Bahrain. U.S. military planners say they could shift at least 4,000 soldiers to Kuwait after next month's withdrawal from Iraq as part of efforts to boost the Pentagon's already strong presence in the Gulf.

The upcoming IAEA report also must run its course. The U.S. and others hope it will persuade the IAEA board to refer the findings to the U.N. Security Council for possible tougher sanctions on Iran or -- as an alternative -- a deadline for greater cooperation with the nuclear agency's investigators.

Any scenario, however, will likely shed greater light on common ground between Israel and the Gulf states over how to further isolate and intimidate Iran.

"I would put it this way: The Gulf states, some of them, would like Israel to be more active against Iran, though they would never say it publicly," said Meir Litvak, a regional expert at the Dayan Center think tank at Tel Aviv University.

For many in Israel, the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran is framed in the starkest terms.

Israel is widely believed to have the only nuclear weapons arsenal in the Mideast -- although it refuses to either confirm or deny that -- and an Iranian bomb would sharply reorder the balance of power and be seen as a direct challenge to Israel's survival.

In a BBC interview aired Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Iran's actions could open "major nuclear arms race" in the region and give Tehran increased leverage over Mideast affairs. Barak said that "paralyzing" sanctions could be enough to pressure Iran, but that "no option should be removed from the table."

"We live in a tough neighborhood," he said. "No mercy for the weak."

The Gulf's views on Iran are generally shaped by decades-old perceptions that the Shiite-led Islamic Republic seeks to weaken the Sunni monarchs and sheiks ruling from Kuwait to Oman. But the levels of worry vary greatly.

Oman maintains close ties with Iran as co-overseers of the Strait of Hormouz at the mouth of the Gulf, which is the passageway for about 40 percent of the world's oil tanker traffic. Energy-rich Qatar, meanwhile, seeks to build more commercial links with Iran, including a deal last week that could allow state-run Qatar Airways to operate flights within Iran alongside the sanctions-battered Iranian passenger fleet.

Saudi Arabia, the Gulf's main power center, appears most eager to tighten the pressure on Iran.

Its leaders have repeatedly accused Iran of trying to destabilize the Gulf Arab states, including claims of encouraging Shiite-led protests for greater rights in strategic Bahrain. Saudi officials also have not tried to publicly counter the U.S. claims that Iranian agents were linked to a foiled plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

In one of the most repeated snippets from leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, Saudi's King Abdullah in 2008 urged a U.S.-led attack against Iran to "cut off the head of the snake" and halt Tehran's nuclear program.

Saudi and Israeli policies also have crossed paths at times in the Arab Spring, with each shaken by the fall of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and hoping the Syrian protests against Bashar Assad's regime weaken the Iranian influence in the country.

Still, some analysts remain highly skeptical whether Saudi Arabia and its allies would give a nod to an Israeli attack, which could open a wider conflict in the Gulf and possibly choke off crucial oil exports.

"Yes, the Arab and Persian mutual antipathy is legendary. But the question is whether any Gulf state would go to the extreme of supporting an Israeli attack on Iran," said Ehsan Ahrari, a political analyst based in Virginia who taught security studies at the National Defense University. "The Gulf sheikdoms have to think very hard on this issue."