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Monday, February 15, 2010

Arab countries ambivalent about sanctions, don't believe they'll matter

The Wall Street Journal reports that Arab countries are ambivalent about sanctioning Iran, apparently because they don't believe it will work anyway.
The issue of sanctions is especially controversial, and few officials in the region say, even privately, that they believe sanctions will have any effect on Tehran's behavior.

As recently as December, Bahraini officials hosting a security conference in Manama, attended by Iranian diplomats and U.S. State Department and military officials, publicly said that they were against new sanctions on Tehran.

Still, the region could play a more discreet role in the current international debate over United Nations-backed economic measures targeting Iran, analysts say.

Martin Indyk, the director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, the Washington-based think tank, says Saudi Arabia could persuade China—which is a big trading partner with Iran and so far has indicated little support for further sanctions—that a nuclear-powered Iran is bad for the stability of global oil exports and thus Beijing's oil-dependent economy.

Arab Gulf trade with China jumped to $80 billion in 2008 from just $12 billion in 2002, according to trade statistics from the Gulf countries. That outstrips the $50 billion traded between China and Iran in 2008, according to Mr. Indyk.

A Saudi official declined to comment on his government's position toward Iranian sanctions, or any effort by Riyadh to influence China's thinking on the issue.

Meanwhile, a debate has broken out among regional commentators recently about the wisdom of Gulf states remaining quiet in the face of Iran's stepped-up nuclear rhetoric.

Abdallah al-Shayji, a Bahraini political analyst, wrote in an editorial last week in the Dubai-based Gulf News that a policy of fencesitting by Gulf Arab governments towards Iran would be disastrous for the region.

"Iran has for a long time bet on the [Gulf's] lack of a coherent and well articulated, unified strategy and stance against it," he wrote. "The [Gulf] states, bilaterally and collectively, continue to pursue cordial relations with Iran, hoping that this will prevent it from menacing them. But this strategy has been found wanting and lacks strategic depth."
Left unmentioned is another role the US is hoping Saudi Arabia will play with China: Guaranteeing its oil supply in the event that sanctions are imposed on Iran.

But what's really up in the air from this article - probably because the Arab countries themselves have not decided - is what they would like to happen if Iran doesn't back down (which appears likely). They cannot be seen supporting an Israeli strike on Iran. So do they sit tight and hope Israel will do it anyway? Do they quietly encourage the Obama administration to do it? The Gulf countries are supposedly convinced (I am not) that they will be targeted by Iran before Israel will. If that is the case, they cannot be without a position on these issues.

And yes, I agree with them that at this point, sanctions are an exercise in futility, but we ought to impose them anyway.


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