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Gulf leaders seek closer ties with Iran

After years of concern about the possible spread of Iranian-style Islamic revolution to their shores, the conservative rulers of the Gulf Arab states are exploring the prospects of closer ties with Iran. Relations with Iran were a top item on the agenda of the Gulf Cooperation Council summit that ends today in Bahrain. The GCC, formed in 1981 after the outbreak of the Gulf war, is made up of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain.

Though only bits and pieces of information have emerged from the closed-door sessions, Gulf leaders appear keen on adopting a new, postwar diplomatic strategy. According to diplomatic and other Gulf-based analysts, the broad outline of the their postwar approach includes three main aims:

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To help the stalled Iran-Iraq peace process move forward.

To build closer ties with Iran as a counter-balance against a militarily confident Iraq, which could now turn its attention and its revolutionary Baath socialist ideology on its conservative and rich Arab neighbors. As one Saudi official in Riyadh put it recently: ``If the Iraqi Army could move east (into Iran), it could also move south [into Saudi Arabia].''

In addition, it is hoped that warmer ties with Iran would end its encouragement of militant Arab Muslims to launch their own Islamic revolutions.

To maintain friendly ties with Iraq as a hedge against a possible resumption of the war or Iranian attempts to inspire subversion. The Gulf states will also quietly encourage Washington to maintain its 25-ship presence in the region to keep up pressure on Iran for progress at peace talks and as a further hedge should the fighting resume.

Conscious of the Gulf states' new posture, both Iraq and Iran have recently launched diplomatic initiatives to Gulf capitals. Iraq would like to strengthen ties and to ensure a continuing flow of Gulf funding to help rebuild its war-shattered infrastructure, diplomatic and other analysts say.

For its part, Iran has been encouraging Gulf states to put aside fears and past differences with the mullahs in Tehran. Iranian diplomats are working to shore up relations largely in a bid to drive a wedge between the Gulf states and Iraq, analysts say.

They seek to isolate the Iraqis, to strengthen their own hand in negotiations, and to make it more difficult for Iraq to consider a resumption of hostilities against the badly mauled Iranian military forces. They are also keen to establish a better working relationship with the powerful Gulf oil producers to avoid being undercut within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, diplomatic analysts say.

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The chief barrier to Iran's efforts for a rapprochement with the GCC is Saudi Arabia.

In an apparent recognition of this, the Iranian military leader and speaker of parliament, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, issued an appeal Tuesday, the second day of the Gulf summit, for better ties with the Saudis.

``I think in the not too distant future our relations [with the Saudis] will normalize,'' Mr. Rafsanjani was quoted by the Iranian news agency as saying.

He added, ``We are inclined to resolve the issues concerning our relations and so are they.''

Diplomats in Riyadh say that the Saudis are prepared to reestablish ties with Iran eventually. ``The Saudis are waiting for confirmation that what is happening in Iran is real,'' a diplomat says. ``They want Iran to become a conventional power in the Gulf - a nonrevolutionary power.''

Another Riyadh-based diplomat adds, ``They are waiting for a gesture from the Iranian side that it will no longer threaten the security during the pilgrimage period.'' Several diplomats say the Saudis will insist that Iran agree to specific restrictions for Iranian Muslim pilgrims traveling next summer to Mecca.

Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with Iran last April. The dispute stemmed from Iranian attempts to overthrow the Saudi royal family and Saudi financial support for Iraq in the war. The Iran-Saudi confrontation accelerated following the clashes in Mecca in July 1987 between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security forces during which more than 400 persons died.

In the past the Iranians have insisted that Shiite Muslim pilgrims to Mecca be permitted to conduct political rallies and spread revolutionary Islamic teachings during the annual Hajj religious ceremonies.

But the Saudis, orthodox Sunni Muslims, objected to attempts to politicize the Hajj, particularly when the content of the political message was aimed at raising questions about the Islamic credentials of the Saudi royal family.

One Western diplomat based in Riyadh says that he doubts that the Saudis will normalize relations before this summer. ``The next Hajj will probably be the next test,'' he says.

Another diplomat suggests it may be even longer. ``The Saudis will not be prepared to take big steps [toward normalization of relations] until [Iranian leader Ayatollah] Khomeini is dead.''

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