Mideast Realignment: Could Iran Unite Arabs and Israelis?

JERUSALEM -- When Israeli newspapers shook the newsstands in late September with word that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Saudi Arabian officials -- perhaps even the Saudi King -- had held face-to-face talks, not everyone was shocked at the revelation. The two countries have no formal relations. In fact, the official enmity is such that Saudi law, as that of most Arab states, bars anyone with a passport showing an Israeli stamp from entering the country. Still, a handful of Middle East observers were not surprised to hear of possible talks between Israel and the Kingdom. That's because they predict a major realignment will reshape this region.

The cause of this gradual but far-reaching political transformation is fear of Shiite Iran by Sunni Arabs. As a result, the traditional enemy of Arabs, Israel, could gradually begin developing a subtle but powerful alliance with Sunni Muslim regimes in the Arab world.

Ofra Bengio, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, describes a three-pronged threat from Tehran, ideological, political and strategic. The sight of Iran's nuclear program, along with its sponsorship of armed militias such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi army in Iraq, as well as its strong links with the government in Baghdad, pose a growing worry to Sunni-ruled countries that have feared their restive Shiia minorities and to those that have long viewed non-Arab Iran as a rival power in the Middle East. As a result, Sunni regimes in the Arab world, according to some observers, are beginning to see not Israel but Shiia Iran as the country to fear. In Israel, the nation that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says should be "wiped off the map," Tehran is also the top national security concern.

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