Some Middle East analysts say rising concerns about Iran, including its nuclear ambitions and support for terrorist organizations, may have created the potential for new opportunities for strategic cooperation between the United States and its Sunni Arab allies in the Persian Gulf region. Those analysts argue that regional anxieties about Iran could help promote American goals in the Middle East, as we hear in this background report from Meredith Buel in Washington.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the West Bank, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait last month on a mission to seek support for President Bush's new strategy in Iraq and make an attempt to renew Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
Rice says she sees the possibility of political opportunities in the region, as moderate Arab states become increasingly concerned about the influence of Iran.
The executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Robert Satloff, recently returned from a visit to the Middle East.
Satloff says throughout the region, Sunni Arab governments are increasingly worried about Iran's nuclear program, its interference in Iraq and Tehran's support for groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.
"Today Sunni Arab animosity to all things Persian and all things Shi'ite is deep," he said. "Sunni Arab fear of rising Iranian influence in the Middle East is palpable. Sunni Arab desire not to be tarred with the same brush as the apocalyptic Shi'ite mystic who serves as Iran's president is real. In this sense, in my view, we in the West have a moment of opportunity, not to stoke inter-religious conflict, but to take advantage of the Sunni Arab anxiety about Iran to advance vital strategic, political and ideological objectives."
Satloff argues Sunni Arab states want the United States to counter growing Iranian influence, especially among radicals, but says there is little evidence so far these governments are willing to take significant political risks to help promote American goals in the region.
Satloff says the Bush administration should challenge countries like Saudi Arabia to use its economic power in an effort to contain Iran.
"The Saudis should be asked to use their not inconsequential influence to become full partners in the effort to raise the costs to the Iranians of their pursuing objectionable behavior, including the nuclear weapons program," he said. "This, for example, would include the Saudis talking directly to the Chinese and asking them to make a choice, invest in Iran or invest in Saudi Arabia."
The Arab states have been urging the Bush administration to become more engaged in efforts to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying that dispute hinders progress on other issues.
Later this month Secretary Rice is expected to convene talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and hold discussions on the so-called "final-status" issues of the peace process, such as borders of a Palestinian state, refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
Such talks are designed to give the Palestinian people a "political horizon" to build confidence if they commit to a peaceful dialog and provide them with a feeling of partnership with the Israelis.
This approach was recently endorsed by the "Quartet" on the Middle East, which consists of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
The director of the Washington Institute's Project on the Middle East Peace Process, David Makovsky, says he expects the negotiations will be difficult.
"So Rice, the Quartet have all put the eggs in the basket right now of trying to revive the Palestinian track, believing that is the hope and believing that the political horizon is somehow the panacea to get around all these other interim issues. But I think the challenges are formidable," he said.
So as the Bush administration begins a renewed effort on the Israeli-Palestinian front, some analysts wonder if changing political dynamics in the region can boost efforts by the United States and moderate Arab countries to block growing Iranian influence.
The Washington bureau chief of the London-based Arabic daily al-Hayat, Salameh Ne'ematt, says the split between Sunni and Shi'ites is leading to both violence and instability.
"The point being made is that U.S. policy can benefit from the Sunni-Shi'ite rift, that Sunni-Shi'ite hostilities are good for American policy," he said. "It might be, tactically, but it is really bad for people who are dying as the result of the fueling of the anti-Shi'ite feelings, such as we see in Iraq and we see also, dangerously, on the brink of a [government] collapse in Lebanon."
Analysts at the Washington Institute say as long as Shi'ite dominated Iran continues to pursue efforts to become a regional superpower, the United States and Sunni Arab countries in the Middle East will continue to be natural allies.