Poor relations between the Persian and Arab worlds stretch back centuries, at times driven by religious and cultural competition in the region. The latest frictions have surfaced over the conflict in Iraq, with Arab leaders concerned over Iran's influence on Iraq's Shiite majority political groups. Earlier this month, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak charged that Shiites are not loyal to their own countries but to the Shiite theocracy in Iran (Daily Times). King Abdullah II of Jordan has famously warned of a "Shiite crescent" spanning Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon that could someday engulf its Sunni Arab neighbors. Arab leaders bristle at the thought of U.S. and Iranian diplomats meeting behind their backs to discuss Iraq's future.
So it is not surprising that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran does not sit well with Arab leaders, as this new CFR Background Q&A explains. The United Arab Emirates' foreign minister called Tehran's nuclear program "a big worry" (Guardian). Chief among Arabs' concerns is that a nuclear Iran might pursue a more aggressive foreign policy, throw off the region's balance of power, or provoke others—notably Egypt or Saudi Arabia—to pursue their own nuclear-weapon programs. But ridding Iran of its nuclear capabilities by force also presents obvious problems. A military strike, instigated by either Israel or the United States, might escalate; as Cambridge University's Khalid Hroub writes in the Daily Star, the Arab states "would be caught in the crossfire." These Arab governments must also appease a populace that is less anti-Iranian and more anti-American than its political leadership. Perhaps that is why the Arab states, to date, have treading softly by not taking sides in the nuclear standoff between the West and Iran.
From all sides, the Iranian nuclear issue is problematic. As CFR's Michael Levi writes in the New York Times, taking out the uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz with a tactical nuclear strike "makes little sense." Yet staging a conventional strike, similar to Israel's attack of Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981, would not be "small or quick" and "would not remain limited for long," writes CFR President Richard Haass in the Financial Times. Another option—economic sanctions—would be nearly impossible to achieve without China and Russia onboard. And ramped-up soft diplomacy efforts by the U.S. State Department, as this CFR Background Q&A explains, are not enough to bring about regime change anytime soon in Iran. That leaves the diplomatic route. Coupled with concessions, this is the least problematic way to slow down—if not stop—Iran's nuclear program, says CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh. An April 5 CFR symposium on Iran outlines the issues, from a technological, diplomatic, and military perspective.