Iran nuclear ambitions are major Gulf threat: NATO
By Mohammed Abbas
MANAMA (Reuters) - NATO's secretary-general told Gulf Arab states on Thursday that Iran's nuclear ambitions were a major threat to regional stability.
"Iran's pursuit of uranium enrichment capability in violation of its U.N. Security Council obligations is a serious concern not just for Iran's neighbors but for the entire international community," Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told a conference to promote ties between NATO and Gulf Arab states.
Iran says its nuclear program is aimed solely at producing electricity but the West accuses it of trying to develop nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies. Gulf Arab states have also voiced concern over Iran's nuclear plans.
"We in the Gulf think Iran has the right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, but we fear Iran's intentions. We (the Gulf states) speak the same language on Iran," Bahraini politician Sheikh Khaled Khalifa al Khalifa told Reuters.
NATO, a 26-nation security and defense alliance of North American and European countries, has sought to bolster ties with Gulf Arab states. Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have agreed to explore cooperation opportunities.
At the conference, Bahrain signed an agreement with NATO on the exchange of security information.
NATO's dialogue with the Gulf countries is part of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, launched in 2004.
Saudi Arabia and Oman have yet to join the Istanbul initiative. An Omani conference delegate declined to comment on whether the country would eventually join while Saudi Arabia's representative said the kingdom had not yet decided.
NATO's involvement in Afghanistan, where violence has risen since the Taliban relaunched their insurgency to overthrow the pro-Western Afghan government and eject foreign troops, has disappointed many Arabs.
The role of key NATO members the United States and Britain in the Iraq war has also fostered skepticism, diplomats said.
"The general feeling toward NATO, after what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not good," conference delegate Azmy Khalifa, Egypt's ambassador to Bahrain, said.
De Hoop Scheffer said many people thought of NATO as a "Cold War institution," a label he said was an outdated stereotype.
"It's a question to some degree in terms of the role and the mission of NATO and I think that that lack of clarity is prevalent even within NATO circles," said Abdullah Al Mouallimi, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Brussels and the European Union.
Other issues of mutual concern to NATO and the Gulf include border security, safeguarding energy supply lines, disaster control and public diplomacy, officials said.
(Editing by Robert Woodward)