US, EU officials meet Arab leaders on Iran

Senior US and European officials meet with Arab leaders worried about a potential deal that could give Iran more power.

The former prime minister Tony Blair, far left to right, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attend a meeting of Middle East peace sponsors in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Shiekh on Nov 9 2008.
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SHARM EL-SHEIKH, EGYPT // Senior US and European officials met with several Arab leaders today who are worried about the international community negotiating a deal with Iran that would give the Islamic Republic more power in the Middle East, said a US official and a meeting participant. The meeting comes less than a week after the victory of the US President-elect Barack Obama, who has said he is more open to holding talks with Iran on the country's controversial nuclear programme.

The sentiment expressed in the meeting by the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates indicates they are concerned about what Mr Obama would be willing to offer Iran to strike a deal. The US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who attended the meeting along with the European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and the French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, assured the Arab foreign ministers that Washington would not offer Iran greater influence in the Middle East in exchange for nuclear concessions, said a meeting participant.

"The United States' view is that Iran should not gain a privileged role in the region," the meeting participant quoted Ms Rice as saying during the discussions, which were held on the sidelines of a meeting on Israeli-Palestinian peace in the Egyptian Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. The Arab foreign ministers were most concerned about Iranian influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and other areas of the Gulf, said the meeting participant, who spoke on condition of anonymity along with the US official because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Ms Rice's assurances may mean little to Arab officials since she is not able to speak for the incoming administration. However, while Mr Obama has signalled a greater willingness to talk to the Iranians, he has also said it is unacceptable for Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. The US and many of its allies have accused Iran of using its nuclear programme as a cover for weapons development. Iran denies the charge, saying it is focused on building reactors to generate electricity. Many Arab countries in the Middle East, which are predominantly Sunni Muslim, have also expressed concern about Shiite Iran's intentions in the region.