Region evasive over Iran sanctions

Analysts split on whether Hillary Clinton's visit to the Gulf this week to push for sanctions against Iran will be enough to win support.

KUWAIT CITY // Analysts are split on whether Hillary Clinton's visit to the Gulf this week to push for sanctions against Iran will be enough to win the support of the region's Arab monarchies. Allen Keiswetter, a scholar at a Washington-based think tank called the Middle East Institute (MEI), who attended the US-Islamic World Forum along with the US secretary of state earlier this week, said the Gulf's leaders were evasive when asked questions about their support for sanctions against Iran.

The Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al Thani, "basically fluffed the question and said it was time for more serious, direct talks between the US and Iranians", Mr Keiswetter said. Mrs Clinton also visited Saudi Arabia to have talks with King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and the foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, during her trip. In a press conference after the meeting the foreign minister also side-stepped questions about the Saudi position, Mr Keiswetter said.

"The question to them was: would the Saudis be willing to bring pressure to bear on the Chinese to support sanctions? And Saud al Faisal said they didn't need to make their pressures known because the Chinese knew what they had to do. "I'm not quite sure where the Saudis are headed," he said. "They play their cards very close to their chest." Saudi Arabia and Qatar's huge energy reserves could be used to help persuade Beijing to allow UN sanctions against Iran for its nuclear programme. China is currently a large importer of Iranian oil and as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council it can veto resolutions in the assembly.

Mr Keiswetter was speaking on the sidelines of the Global Strategy Conference in Kuwait on Wednesday. The two-day event, organised by the Jusoor Arabiya consultancy and Smadja and Associates, a strategic advisory firm based in Switzerland, brought together policy-makers and businessmen to discuss the economic, political and social challenges facing the region. Wendy Chamberlin, the president of the MEI and former US ambassador to Pakistan who also attended the conference, was more hopeful that Mrs Clinton had won the backing of the region's leaders. She said she believed the Arabian Gulf countries would join an international coalition to support sanctions against their Persian neighbour.

"It's my impression that the Gulf states are equally worried about a nuclear armed - power there, and they'd like a firm international response to it, short of a military attack," Ms Chamberlin said. Even if the US cannot get Chinese support for sanctions against Iran, bills are going through the American legislative system that could prevent some companies from conducting business with the Islamic republic, Mr Keiswetter said. He said the bills would target sectors such as oil and gas and security, and if foreign companies choose to ignore the restrictions, they might have to forfeit trade with the US.

Ms Chamberlin said she believed the Revolutionary Guard could be targeted by a trade sanctions regime. "You wouldn't want to put a sanction on rice or lamb or things that affect the people most directly, but you can put sanctions on microchips, weapons, that sort of thing," she said. If the average Iranian is impoverished by new trade restrictions, their leadership could accuse foreigners of attacking their economy and stir up hatred against the West, but Ms Chamberlin said this threat will be negated by targeting the Revolutionary Guard and the companies it controls.

Other strategists at the conference believed that sanctions are not only politically dangerous, but they could wreak havoc with the economies of Gulf Co-operation Council member states. Because it is a base for thousands of Iranian companies and the extensive trade links it has, Dubai could be especially vulnerable. "We are very much opposed to any measures that will increase the cycle of violence and the cycle of crisis in this region," said Shafeeq Ghabra, a political scientist at Kuwait University who is also the CEO of Jusoor Arabiya. "There are two wars in the region now, one in Iraq and another in Afghanistan, and we don't need a third war, neither do we need sanctions that will lead to a third war."

Mr Ghabra believes that the world might have to come to terms with the fact that Iran is going to develop nuclear weapons, just as Israel has, and it needs to start thinking about how to have peaceful relations with a nuclear Iran."What is the price? And if we go in that direction, is it worth it?" he asked.