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Arabs Ready To Let Iran In From the Cold

But caution tempers Gulf states' willingness to allow Tehran a role in regional security

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THE white stucco mansion, which housed Iran's Embassy until Egypt broke ties with Tehran four years ago, is suddenly astir with workers bearing pots of paint and office furniture: A new Iranian charge d'affaires is moving in. In Saudi Arabia, on Jiddah's Medina Road, the Persian rug shop is about to restock, permitted for the first time since 1987 to import carpets from Iran.

And in Kuwait, American firefighters battling in the blazing oil fields are getting ready to work alongside Iranian experts, who have just won a $100 million contract to help put out the flames.

All over the Middle East, Arab countries are cautiously responding to Iranian overtures. But while their governments say they are hopeful about Tehran's moves to come in from the cold, a heritage of religious, political, and historical rivalries weighs heavily on their outlook.

"If the Iranians open their hand to us, we will open our heart to them," says a Saudi specialist on Gulf affairs, summing up sentiments shared by many in the Arab world. "We don't trust them, but we are ready to give them a chance." One sign of this is the arrival yesterday of Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, in Tehran to discuss future ties.

The gulf between Iran and the Arab world is more than a body of water, and Arabs and Persians have vied with one another for centuries. More recently, the Arab world rallied around Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran. Sunni Muslim countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia accused Tehran's Shiite regime of fomenting fundamentalist subversion.

But for Arab members of the coalition that waged war on Iraq earlier this year, Iran's studiously neutral stance was an encouraging sign. Now, as Gulf countries plan their future security arrangements, they are thinking of ways of giving Iran a role.

This new openness is welcome news to Syria, the only Arab country to back Iran against Iraq, despite President Hafez al-Assad's distaste for fundamentalism.

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