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Fears Of Iran Clash.

Increasingly tough talk on Iran from the Bush administration - with Vice-President Dick Cheney warning of the "growing threat" from the Shi'ite theocracy - has rattled politicians and diplomats in Washington worried that the war in Iraq is set to widen. While few lay claim to understanding what Bush has in mind, there is a widespread sense that the likelihood of some kind of military clash or conflict with Iran - directly or through proxies - has risen since the US president on Jan. 10 accused Tehran of providing "material support for attacks on American troops" in Iraq.

The FT on Jan. 19 said "a former senator described the atmosphere to Saudi Arabia's departing ambassador [to Washington], Prince Turki al-Faisal, over dinner on Wednesday night" [Jan. 17] as: "The air is filled with the possibility of action against Iran's nuclear capability". Prince Turki, a former head of Saudi intelligence, replied: The consequences would be "catastrophic".

However, over a long evening hosted by the New America Foundation, Prince Turki conveyed the impression that the Bush administration's rhetoric and sabre-rattling - including the dispatch of a second aircraft carrier group and Patriot air defence missiles to the GCC, and a raid on an Iranian office in Iraq - was intended more as a loud demonstration that the US was not retreating from the region. Prince Turki said there was concern "in the region" that Bush's authority had been eroded by the Republicans' loss of Congress in the Nov. 7 mid-term elections.

Prince Turki said attempts by the new Democratic-controlled Congress to limit US troop numbers in Iraq would be a serious mistake. Analysts say the US-Saudi relationship, previously under great strain in the wake of 9/11 has become the key to the US strategy of containment and deterrence towards Iran.

Ms Rice speaks repeatedly of a "new alignment" in the Middle East - where the "responsible" leaders of the GCC, plus Jordan and Egypt, are aligned with the US [and Israel] against the "extremist" forces of Iran, Syria, Lebanon's Hizbullah, and the Palestinian group Hamas (see news4-IranSyriaAxisJan22-07).

Ms Rice has singled out Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as responsible for helping Shi'ite death squads in Iraq and providing explosives used against US forces. The FT quoted Ray Takeyh, analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations, as saying: "It's not new at all; it is back to the 1980s", recalling the Sunni Arab funding and US support for Iraq's Saddam Hussein in his 1980-88 war with Iran, adding: "You might see a sort of proxy war inside Iraq". But he noted that Iran's response to the US seizure of five of its officials in Irbil had been "judicious".

Although Prince Turki evaded questions about the "new alignment" and criticised the US refusal to speak to Iran, his remarks confirmed the deterioration in relations between Riyadh and Tehran. He spoke of an argument over Iran's alleged interference in Iraq at a Jan. 14 meeting between King Abdullah and senior Iranian security official Ali Larijani in Riyadh. He said the king told Larijani Iran was not playing a constructive role in Iraq. The king said Iraq risked becoming "a danger to its neighbours" - a clear reference to Saudi fears that the growing Sunni-Shi'ite conflict will infect the region and stir up unrest among Saudi Arabia's substantial Shi'ite minority.

Asked about the support Iraq's Sunni insurgents received from inside Saudi Arabia, Prince Turki said they were backed from all over the Sunni world. But he denied the kingdom was interfering in Iraq and said it was trying to stop cross-border infiltration.

Diplomats in Washington anxious about possible US-Iranian hostilities say the Bush administration has concluded that UNSC sanctions against Iran will not work because of opposition from Russia and China. Muhammad ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), on Jan. 18 expressed similar concerns, saying: "I don't think sanctions will resolve the issue. I think sanctions, in my view, could lead to escalation on both sides".
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Publication:APS Diplomat Redrawing the Islamic Map
Date:Jan 22, 2007
Words:657
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