Financial Times: In public, Arab governments have little to say about international concerns over Iran's nuclear programme. Even Arab members of the International Atomic Energy Agency board try to keep out of discussions on Iran, rarely expressing an opinion. When pressed to react, Arab officials bring up Israel's undeclared nuclear arsenal and ask why no one is interested in disarming the Jewish state. Financial Times

By Roula Khalaf

In public, Arab governments have little to say about international concerns over Iran's nuclear programme.

Even Arab members of the International Atomic Energy Agency board try to keep out of discussions on Iran, rarely expressing an opinion.

When pressed to react, Arab officials bring up Israel's undeclared nuclear arsenal and ask why no one is interested in disarming the Jewish state.

Behind the public silence, however, lurks anxiety in the Sunni-dominated Gulf over Shia Iran's widening regional power.

The concerns have been heightened by the removal of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Tehran's long-time foe. The rise of the Shias of Iraq, likely to dominate the first elected parliament next year, has given Iran vast influence over its neighbour and shifted the balance of power in the Gulf.

"Countries in the Gulf are very concerned about an Iran weapons programme. No one expresses views but Iran is a country with an ideology to project," says a western diplomat involved in nuclear discussions. "It's not so much today but if Iran has a weapon in 10 years they would be sitting under the sword of Damocles."

The easing of Iran's revolutionary fervour has allowed better relations with Arab Gulf states in recent years. Countries with Shia populations - Shias are a majority in Bahrain and a minority in Saudi Arabia - have overcome their suspicions about Iranian meddling in their domestic affairs.

But the change of regime in Iraq and the discovery by UN inspectors of a sophisticated Iranian programme to develop nuclear technology are reviving old fears.

Until recently Iranian expansionism was checked by the US policy of dual containment of Iran and Iraq, which kept both countries weakened.

"The Gulf countries naturally see Iran as the big power, much more powerful than any Gulf state including Saudi Arabia, and as a country that needs to be balanced," says Gary Samore, non-proliferation expert at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies. "There's a complaint now in the Gulf - that the US has upset the natural balance because Saddam was seen as at least checking Iran's aspirations."

King Abdullah of Jordan expressed some of the anxiety last week when he accused Iran of trying to influence Iraq's elections next month in favour of Shia religious parties. He warned that an Islamic regime in Iraq would destabilise Gulf countries with Shia minorities.

"If Iraq goes Islamic Republic, then yes, we've opened ourselves to a whole set of new problems that will not be limited to the borders of Iraq," he said.

According to Mr Samore, some Gulf states are even looking to the US to maintain military bases in Iraq to counter Iran's long-term influence, though such a prospect is opposed by Arab public opinion.

The US has military bases in Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain, and provides Saudi Arabia with a security umbrella, even though American forces were removed from the kingdom last year.

The Saudi regime appears to recognise the need for stronger self-reliance and has called for tighter security arrangements in the Gulf Co-operation Council, which groups Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

Meanwhile, Iran has an alternative to the Saudi proposal: at an IISS conference in Bahrain this month, it proposed a new regional assembly and a nuclear-free zone for the Gulf. The quid pro quo, however, was that the rest of the Gulf should rid itself of ties to external powers.