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Watching Tehran: Amid Turmoil, Iran Remains Region's Biggest Concern

While the political unrest unleashed by the Arab spring continues to roil the region, heightened worries about Iran are the primary shaper of Middle East defense priorities.

While Iran may be losing influence in places like Lebanon and Syria, it is gaining power elsewhere, especially in Iraq, where U.S. troops are completing their withdrawal, said Danny Sebright, president of the U.S.-UAE Business Council and a counselor at the Cohen Group, Washington.

And a Nov. 8 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which offered more evidence that Iran continues to work toward acquiring a nuclear weapon, underlined a key reason why Tehran is making its neighbors worry.

Countries in the region do not necessarily fear that Iran will use a nuclear weapon once it acquires one, but that the capability will embolden them, Sebright said.

A British industry executive agreed.

"Most countries are looking at the threat and capabilities of Iran in much the same way that many Asian nations look at China when deciding on their defense posture," he said.

To counter Iran's ascendency, neighboring countries will continue to invest in missile defense and other deterrent capabilities that will make Iran think twice before it throws its weight around, Sebright said.

Countries in the region are also closely watching the political battle in Tehran. Iranian leadership is split between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as their factions vie for control of the country.

Sebright said the alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington "is a manifestation of a very tremendous and intense leadership struggle that's ongoing in Tehran.

"I believe that what we're seeing is a situation where miscalculation and uncertainty could lead to a great catastrophe," he said. "There is no clear command and control and some power center could overstep."

To counter these concerns, the United States is re-energizing its partnership with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

"I think in the areas of maritime security, regional missile defense, we see opportunities to do things more on a multilateral basis than has been the case hitherto for building on the bilateral ties that we already have with some of the key partners and doing things more in a U.S.-GCC framework," a senior Obama administration official said during a background briefing that previewed a Sept. 23 GCC meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The meeting took place during the U.N. General Assembly.

The administration views the GCC as "at the heart of the region's security architecture," and the White House is "starting to formalize how we work together between the United States and the GCC," the administration official said.

Concern about Iran has quickened the pace of these discussions, Sebright said.

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