January 10, 2007 -- FRENCH Foreign Minister Philippe Douste Blazy calls it "unthinkable his Russian colleague Sergei Lavrov prefers "unimaginable." The terms are also used in Western diplomatic circles to describe an event few wish to contemplate: a military showdown with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yet a recent tour of Arab capitals presents a different picture: Arab leaders appear resigned to such a showdown as inevitable, and are preparing for it.
The first sign came at last month's annual summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, a group of six oil-exporting Arab states) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. "There were four items on the agenda," says a participant. "As we examined each, we found out that in every case we faced Iran."
* One item was Iraq: The leaders concluded that Iran had already developed plans to dominate that country once the U.S.-led multinational force withdraws.
* Another item was Lebanon: The Arab leaders agreed that Tehran, using Hezbollah, was working to attach that country to an emerging "Shiite Crescent."
The Islamic Republic is also consolidating its hold on Syria, whose weak and isolated regime now depends on Iranian economic and military support.
Last year, the Islamic Republic asked two official clerics, Ayatollah Shirazi and Ayatollah Lenkorani, to recognize the Syrian Alawite sect as a branch of Shiism. Mainstream Shiites (like Sunnis) regard Alawites as a heretical sect. Thus, the Iranian move may seem designed to rehabilitate the Alawites. More, the fatwas open the way for Iranian missionaries to pursue a mass conversion of Syrian Alawites to the Khomeinist version of Shiism.
* On another item, the Palestine-Israel conflict, the Arab leaders agreed that Iran was the chief stumbling bloc to a revival of the peace process.
Tehran's influence among Palestinians had hitherto been limited to small groups such as Islamic Jihad. In the past two years, however, Tehran has spent "vast sums of money and energy" to procure clients in the Sunni Islamist Hamas movement and leftist guerrilla groups. The Islamic Republic has launched a new program under which thousands of Palestinian "volunteers for martyrdom" are trained in Iran, Lebanon and Syria to fight both Israel and the secular faction of Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority.
* The fourth key issue discussed in Riyadh was more directly linked to the Islamic Republic: the potential threat that Iran's nuclear program poses to the region's ecosystems.
While the West worries about the program's military aspects, the Arabs see it as a threat even in its civilian version. Iran's only nuclear plant - at Hellieh on the Bushehr Peninsula - is some 80 miles from the capital cities of Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, as well as from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia's main city on the Gulf. "There was agreement that we would be the first victims of any mishap in the Iranian nuclear plant," says a participant."
The Arabs feel especially frustrated because Iran's new leadership under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad refuses even to consider their grievances. During the 2005 presidential campaign, Ahmadinejad described the GCC states as "gas stations, not countries." Last autumn, when the GCC sent a senior team to discuss Arab nuclear fears, Ahmadinejad dismissed the whole thing as "yarns woven by Jews."
"He told us that the Iranian nuclear sites were so safe that he would build his own offices on top of them," a member of the Arab delegation says. "The man is f---ing delusional."
As if Ahmadinejad's shenanigans were not enough, Iranian "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei has added his venom to relations with Arabs.
Earlier this month, he decided, for the first time ever, not to attend the Feast of the Sacrifice, the most important date on Sunni Islam's calendar, triggering rumors of his death. A few days later, however, he appeared in ceremonies to mark the Feast of the Khom Pond, the most important day on the Shiite calendar. According to Shiites, it marks the occasion when Prophet Muhammad chose his cousin and son-in-law Ali as his heir. Sunni Muslims dispute that account and insist that Muhammad did not choose an heir, leaving the choice to the ummah - community of believers.
Moreover, Khamenei went out of his way to brand Sunni beliefs as "deviant" and "misguided," claiming that the Sunni refusal to recognize Ali as the Prophet's legitimate heir lay at the root of Islam's subsequent decline. He then invited the Arab states to distance themselves from the West and accept Iranian leadership - an implicit invitation to covert to Shiism.
"We had hoped that Iran's current delusions were limited to Ahmadinejad," says an Arab leader. "But Khamenei has shown that he, too, may have become intoxicated."
"The Khomeinist leadership is clearly seeking a military showdown," says Sami Farraj, one of the Persian Gulf's noted strategic analysts. "The reason is that they have been pushing the knife in the butter without hitting anything hard. They will not stop; indeed they cannot, until someone stops them."
One reason for Tehran's "increasing cockiness" is Ahmadinejad's success in convincing the Khomeinist leadership that the United States is in "strategic retreat."
"The American Great Satan is wounded and bleeding," says Hassan Abbasi, Ahmadinejad's strategic advisor." Bush is the last U.S. president to make a stand. And he, too, is weakened by the victory of his enemies [in recent U.S. elections]."
Abbasi believes that the Islamic Republic should adopt "pre-emptive discouragement" to break the will of the American leaders that will succeed Bush. "If we break Bush, no other American leader would have the heart to defy Islam," he says.
American politics may be heading for uncertain waters. The Arabs, however, appear unusually determined to resist the tide of Khomeinism.
* Last autumn, the GCC states - plus Jordan and Egypt - asked Washington to review their defenses in case of a showdown with Iran. The mission, led by the then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman, presented its report last month.
* Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan have concluded partnership accords with NATO, and two more Arab states, Kuwait and Bahrain, have opened talks for a similar relationship with the alliance.
* Last month, British Premier Tony Blair proposed an alliance of moderate Arab states, backed by major Western powers, to contain the Khomeinist threat. At least 10 Arab states have indicated interest.
Fear of a showdown with Iran has triggered an arms race. The GCC states have placed orders for 150 ultra-modern European and American fighter jets and are negotiating massive purchases of surface-to-surface missiles from China and Russia. Average defense budgets in the region show a 17 percent increase.
The GCC group and Egypt have also launched studies to create a nuclear industry - ostensibly for peaceful use, but clearly designed to meet a Iranian military threat.
Tehran started beating the drums of war over a year ago. If one listens carefully, one can now hear the response from the Arab side - in the form of faint drumbeats that are bound to get louder in the months ahead.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian-born journalist and author based in Europe.