US tries to rally region for tough action on Iran

Now that Iran has rejecting a reasonable uranium swap proposal known as the Geneva Agreement, US diplomacy is going into high gear to step up pressure on Tehran.

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Now that Iran has rebuffed many overtures, including rejecting a reasonable uranium swap proposal known as the Geneva Agreement, US diplomacy is going into high gear to step up pressure on Tehran. The US is working on several tracks. At the UN, Washington and Paris have reportedly introduced a draft resolution that includes sanctions targeting companies and individuals closely linked to the ruling establishment. Business interests controlled by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, whose clout is steadily increasing, are a particular target. These efforts would be in addition to the three binding resolutions on Iran that have been passed by the UN since 2006.

The Americans, along with the British and the French, hope that a combination of sanctions and political pressure will damage Iran's economy and standing enough to change its trajectory. Without the agreement of China and Russia, it will be near impossible to do so. But the US also requires its allies in the region, and especially the Gulf states, to join in the effort. This week there is a flurry of US activity in the Middle East, with the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visiting Qatar and Saudi Arabia, her deputy William Burns stopping in Beirut and Damascus, the US deputy treasury secretary Neal Wolin meeting officials in the UAE, and the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen passing through Israel, Egypt and Jordan.

Although the US and the Arab states agree on the principle that a non-nuclear Middle East is in everyone's interest, they have different perceptions of the risks entailed by a coercive strategy. The US is concerned about the international repercussions of Iran going nuclear and the potential dangers to Israeli security. The Gulf states must balance their concern about Iran's regional ambitions with the reality that the country is a neighbour that should not be antagonised unnecessarily.

The US hopes that Gulf countries can guarantee oil supplies to China to offset any impact on oil prices should Beijing agree to UN sanctions. The US also needs Gulf-based businesses to make it more difficult for Iranian firms suspected of ties with the Revolutionary Guard to trade and obtain financing. The US should understand that Arab co-operation will depend on three factors: the degree of US resolve, the effort devoted to Arab-Israeli peace, and a multilateral consensus embedded in the UN resolutions. Indeed, US policy on Iran has appeared hesitant at several junctures. The US administration has also failed to deliver on its peace promise, a paramount demand of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, whom Mrs Clinton met yesterday.

The last thing the Gulf states want is to appear to be doing the US's bidding. The support of Gulf states will be critical to US efforts, which is also why the US should consider their interests as it moves ahead.