Rattled by Iran, Arab Regimes Draw Closer

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Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP / Getty

A United Arab Emirates Air Force F-16F 'Desert Falcon' multirole aircraft prepares for take off

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been "the best recruiting officer" for U.S. military efforts to partner with Arab states over the past year. That's according to General David Petraeus, who as commander of Centcom is responsible for overseeing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and security efforts throughout the region. "There were certain countries which used to hold us at arm's length that have over the last year embraced Central Command in certain cooperative endeavors," Petraeus told TIME in an interview on Dec. 13, citing ballistic-missile defense agreements and shared early-warning systems. "Ahmadinejad's rhetoric is very alarming among countries in this region."

What's been good for Centcom has also been good for the high-tech U.S. arms industry. Despite the global recession, Arab states have signed huge deals for U.S. military hardware, whose sophistication has been on full display in two long wars in the neighborhood. Petraeus said countries in the region now deploy eight Patriot missile-interceptor batteries — up from zero a few years ago — made by Raytheon Corp. And the Pentagon last month announced that Kuwait had ordered upgrades of its Patriot missile system, in a deal worth $410 million. But Raytheon isn't the only beneficiary of anxiety over Iran. The United Arab Emirates this year ordered $9 billion worth of U.S. military gear, Petraeus noted, including 70 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets of a generation more advanced than those being used by the U.S. Air Force. "The Emirati air force can now take out Iran's air force," Petraeus said.

Yet Iran's air force is not what has the region nervous. Much of last weekend's annual Manama Dialogue in Bahrain — a conference of top military and government officials from across the region, where Petraeus spoke with TIME and which was also attended by an Iranian delegation — was devoted to angry clashes over Tehran's nuclear program and allegations that it is waging proxy warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.

Petraeus, in language more blunt than that typically used by Obama Administration officials, lashed out that Iran, "which had become a theocracy, has become a thugocracy because of the hijacked elections and people's response to them." He said Arab hostility toward Iran had helped win support for U.S. strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, he said, there were almost daily attacks using explosive devices manufactured in Iran, while Tehran was using its leverage to strengthen Iranian influence over Iraq's government. Iran sells about 350 million watts of electricity a day to Iraq. "Iraqis see Iran expanding its influence to the degree that they can then call the shots politically, because of Iraq's dependence on Iran for fuel and electricity," said Petraeus.

The most immediate flash point in tensions between Iran and its Arab neighbors is Yemen, one of the regions poorest and most unstable countries, where Shi'ite Houthi rebels in the north launched attacks in neighboring Saudi Arabia last month, sparking an air strike by Saudi jets on Houthi territory. U.S. officials say they have no proof that Iran is involved in the Yemen conflict, but deeply suspicious gulf states, including Yemen, are sure Tehran is stoking a potentially explosive war. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh told TIME last month that the rebels "want to follow the system of Iran," and a Yemeni official in Manama insisted that his country's security forces had found proof of Iranian backing for the rebels.

While senior Iranian officials and uniformed U.S. military officers munched on muffins within touching distance of one another during informal breaks in the Manama discussions, such affability is likely to be in short supply as regional tensions escalate over Iran's growing influence in the Arab world and over the stalemate in diplomatic efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff. That's likely to see nervous Arab regimes drawing closer to the U.S. military — and, presumably, to continue shopping at Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.