* guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 23 September 2009 19.44 BST
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Countries trying to convince Russia and China that long-term interests actually lie in the Gulf
* Julian Borger in New York
Gulf Arab states are to play a new role in the increasingly desperate race to stop Iran's nuclear programme by using their economic leverage to line up support for new tough sanctions, Arab and European officials said today.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will use the prospect of oil contracts, arms deals and work visas to persuade Russia and China - who have been resisting tougher UN sanctions - that their long-term strategic interests lie in the Gulf, not in Iran.
"China and Russia have so far not been presented with the right incentives. They have not been presented with a better substitute," said Sami al-Faraj, an adviser to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a regional body.
GCC representatives will meet at the UN today with diplomats from the six nations handling nuclear negotiations with Iran - the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China - to discuss what the role the Arab states can play ahead of a critical meeting with Iran next week.
A European official confirmed that the Gulf states were playing more of an active role to persuade Russia and China to support tougher economic sanctions if the 1 October meeting of the six-nation negotiating group with Iran does not bring compromise on Tehran's uranium enrichment programme.
It is hoped that economic inducements from the Gulf, combined with Barack Obama's decision last week to abandon a missile defence scheme in eastern Europe, will help win backing from Moscow and Beijing for new UN punitive measures that would go beyond the targeted financial sanctions currently operation, and strike instead at Iran's oil and gas industry.
The Moscow press reported tonight that the Russian delegation "did not rule out" further sanctions.
Foreign ministers from the six-nation group are due to meet tonight in the margins of the UN general assembly to agree a common position before the 1 October meeting. The draft joint text included a warning of further "steps" if Iran does not show signs of compromise at the meeting, but did not elaborate, on the insistence of Russia and China. A European official said Gulf help in persuading Russia and China was useful but was sceptical of the GCC's ability to remain united.
"They talk a good game in private, but when you get them all in a room and ask a difficult question, then they tend to split down the middle," the official said.
However, al-Faraj said the growing Iranian threat in the eyes of the Gulf states, combined with the failure of the six-nation negotiating group to make progress, had stiffened resolve in the region.
"There has been a change of mood in the GCC leadership," al-Faraj, a Kuwaiti strategic analyst, said. "The decision has been taken to play a role."
He listed China and Russia's interest in establishing free trade arrangements with the Gulf, Russia's desire to sell arms, and China's anxiety to seal oil exploration agreements in the region, and to win visas in the Gulf for Chinese workers as among the principal levers that can be pulled to win support for UN sanctions.
Saudi Arabia is reported to be on the verge of a deal to buy over $2bn worth of Russian arms, in the wake of a bilateral military agreement signed last year.
The Saudi monarchy is not pursuing the deal primarily for military purposes, some officials speculated today, but for diplomatic reasons - as an inducement to Russia not to sell advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Iran.
For the same reason, Kuwait is also said to have agreed to reschedule Russian debt and Bahrain has opened talks to buy Russian jet fighters. The GCC as a whole is negotiating with China to issue up to a million work visas to absorb some of the rising ranks of the Chinese unemployed.
"Everyone has something to offer," al-Faraj said. "We need to go to work as a coalition in peace like we have done in war, if we are to prevent another war."
Arab states have been alarmed by the spread of Iranian influence in Lebanon and in Gaza and are concerned that Iran might attempt to become the single dominant power in the Middle East through the development of nuclear weapons.
Iran insists its nuclear programme has an entirely peaceful purpose, for the generation of electricity. The country's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said today Tehran supported the goal of abolishing nuclear weapons.
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