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Commentary: Gulf war jitters

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Arnaud De Borchgrave
Washington DC (UPI) Apr 14, 2009
Gulf Cooperation Council members -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman -- are getting ready for what many now assume will be retaliation from Iran following Israeli bombing of Iran's nuclear facilities later this year.

Up and down the Persian Gulf, Patriot missile batteries have been quietly deployed around key oil installations. The Patriot system is designed to detect, target and then hit incoming missiles that may be no more than 10 to 20 feet long and flying at three to five times the speed of sound. Iran has hundreds of missiles and rockets.

There is also a steady traffic in and out of Washington of high-ranking GCC military and defense officials, including army, air force and navy chiefs. Gulf rulers are fearful Israel's new government, headed by the tough, uncompromising Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, will walk away from any possibility of a Palestinian solution. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said as much when he made clear "we are no longer bound by the previous government's undertakings for the negotiation of a Palestinian state." The Annapolis accord of 2007 for a two-state solution? Didn't happen on our watch, said Israel's new governing team. Lieberman even wants to strip any rights from Arab Israelis who are disloyal to the Jewish state.

Undeterred, George Mitchell, the new super negotiator for a Middle East settlement, went back to the region for the third time since Barack Obama became president of the United States. He sees a glimmer of hope for a peace deal with Syria that would detach the ruling dictatorship from its close ties with Iran. But a Netanyahu government in Israel is not about to give up control of the Golan Heights it has occupied since the 1967 Six Day War.

While Iran may unclench its fist in words, as President Obama unclenched America's, no one in Israel, and very few in other countries, believe Iran's theocrats will relinquish the nuclear ambitions they have been working on secretly for the past quarter of a century. Netanyahu echoed near-unanimous Israeli feelings when he said an Iranian bomb, coupled with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's threats of destruction against the Jewish state, is an "existential crisis" that Israel cannot and will not ignore.

Israel's moderate President Shimon Peres added a stern warning. If forthcoming talks with Iran don't yield results, he admonished, "we'll strike." But, he added, this cannot be done without the United States. Israel's military intelligence chief, Amos Yadlin, told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the emergence of a nuclear arsenal in Iran is now "mainly dependent on a political decision."

The assumption among most GCC rulers is that Israel will launch bombers against some of Iran's 27 nuclear sites as soon as it becomes clear the mullahs won't agree to surrender their nuclear option at upcoming six-power talks. The United States and Iran will be at the same negotiating table -- along with China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany -- for the first time since the Iranian Revolution ousted the shah 30 years ago.

Iran's next presidential elections are scheduled for June 14, when Ahmadinejad may lose the presidency to a candidate judged by Western powers to be comparatively moderate. But the latest word from Iran watchers is that the supreme religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, favors the re-election of his extremist protege. This would be another green light for the Netanyahu coalition government to order an attack.

Interestingly enough, not all the ruling Sunni families in the gulf are against an Israeli attempt to disrupt Iran's nuclear plans. Most feel threatened by nukes in the hands of a Shiite clerical regime that dreams of dominating the gulf, as the shah once did when Britain in 1968 gave up all its commitments east of Suez. In 1971, the shah seized three strategic islands near the Strait of Hormuz -- Abu Musa and Lesser and Greater Tunb -- that Britain had entrusted to the ruler of Abu Dhabi. The mullahs refused to return them -- and then militarized them with naval guns.

There is plenty of tinder up and down the gulf for a major conflagration throughout the region should Israel strike Iran. The mullahs with their revolutionary guards and far-flung intelligence services possess formidable asymmetrical retaliatory capabilities. They also have at their subversive disposal Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza coupled with a growing influence in the West Bank.

Morocco recently severed diplomatic relations with Iran after its agents were caught proselytizing against Sunni Islam and King Mohammed VI. Dubai, one of the seven emirates in the United Arab Emirates, has 400,000 Iranian residents -- including scores of undercover agents. Saudi Arabia's eastern province, where most its oil fields are located, as well as the world's largest offshore oil terminal at Ras Tanura and the kingdom's oil nerve center at Abqaiq, also has a large Shiite minority. And in the kingdom of Bahrain, headquarters for the U.S. 5th Fleet, a majority of the population is Shiite and subject to frequent agitation against the ruling Sunni family.

Qatar, which now enjoys the world's highest standard of living with a per capita income of $78,000, straddles the gulf fence with both ears to the ground, a somewhat ungainly posture but one that's deemed far more secure. The firebrand satellite television station al-Jazeera was created by Qatar's ruling al-Thani family and is headquartered in Doha, the capital. But the United States was also authorized to build a base in Qatar with one of the world's longest military runways. Qatar is forward headquarters for the Tampa-based Central Command headed by Gen. David Petraeus. For the past 15 years the charismatic Sheika Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, the Qatari emir's wife, spearheaded an educational drive that brought several leading U.S. universities to establish branches in Qatar.

If attacked, Iran could also jeopardize an orderly U.S. military exit from neighboring Iraq in 2010. The two countries fought a war from 1980-1988 that killed about 1 million soldiers from both countries. Iran is influential in the western region of Afghanistan.

Oman, which faces Iran across the Strait of Hormuz, has always made good relations with Iran a top priority. But the prudent Omanis also have the gulf's best internal security system.

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