|Iran's Ahmadinejad, left, and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah have strengthened ties |
and security co-operation between their two countries in recent weeks [GALLO/GETTY]
George Bush, the US president, has urged Arab states to think of Iran as the greatest threat to their security, but his warnings are likely to fall on deaf ears in the Middle East.
During a stop in the United Arab Emirates on his Middle East tour on Sunday, Bush called Tehran a "sponsor of terror" and urged Arab allies to confront Iranian "extremism".
But Middle East analysts say the US president is too late as key American allies in the Arab world have thrown their weight behind a growing rapprochement with Iran.
Seyed Mohammad Marandi, a political analyst and professor of political science at Tehran University, said American fumbling in the Middle East has pushed Arabs to adopt dialogue with the Islamic Republic.
He said: "America's wrong policies in the Middle East have ironically helped Iran's voice be heard more clearly, as well as Iran's political prudence that has kept it away from the conflicts in the area.
"At this moment in time, the United States' popularity is at its lowest level among the people all over the Arab world, and Iran's popularity has grown immensely as the only regional power standing against the United States in the same region."
For most of 2007, the US tried to push through a UN resolution to impose economic sanctions on Iran if it did not halt its alleged nuclear weapons programme.
But Washington failed in its bid to isolate Iran in the Middle East.
Not only did its Arab allies reject a punitive US military strike against Iran, but they were also keen on bolstering their own ties with the country.
The members of the Gulf Co-operation Council countries invited Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president, to attend their annual meeting held in Doha, Qatar last December while Egypt engaged in shuttle diplomacy of its own with Tehran.
Often contentious issues between Iran and its neighbours, such as a string of disputed islands bordering the United Arab Emirates, were shelved for later "dialogue" in favour of building trust and rapprochement.
Weeks later, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia invited Ahmadinejad to perform the Hajj in Mecca.
Even Egypt has been keen on extending a friendly hand towards Iran. For the first time in 27 years, the two countries are discussing the possibility of renewing diplomatic relations and reopening Tehran's embassy in Cairo.
In 1980, Tehran cut off ties when Anwar Sadat, then Egyptian president, hosted Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the deposed Shah of Iran.
Iran also blamed Egypt for supporting its enemy during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.
But last week, Ahmadinejad told Iranian television that if Egypt decided to restore full diplomatic ties, he would "put the new Iranian ambassador on the next plane to Cairo".
Street name changed
Iran also caved in to Egyptian demands and recently changed the name of a Tehran street honouring Khaled el-Islamboli, the man who assassinated Sadat.
Fahmy Howeidy, an Egyptian scholar and expert on Iran, believes recent conflicts, including the Iraq war, have elevated Tehran's importance in the region.
Egypt's and Iran's foreign ministers have
met in recent weeks [EPA]
"For one, no one can talk about the Iraqi file without mentioning Iran. Iran is also involved in the Lebanese and Afghani files [and] it has connections with the Syrians, the Palestinians. Thus, if anyone wants to reach a settlement in the region, he should approach Iran," he told Al Jazeera.
Mustafa Bakri, an Egyptian MP and opposition journalist, agrees.
He said: "In the coming period, Iran will play a significant role in the Gulf regional security, perhaps even with the undeclared consent of the international powers.
"At the same time, the Gulf countries would seek to assure Iran that their lands will not be a base from which any war against it will be launched."
Mohammad Ali Hosseini, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, earlier said that existing relations between Iran and its Arab neighbours should be strengthened.
He said: "We believe the stronger the ties get, the more stability, peace and security the Persian Gulf region will enjoy and that is a crucial necessity needed by both Iran and its neighbours in the region."
Marandi believes that the normalisation of Arab ties with Iran also plays to domestic consumption.
"It's despite US pressure that Arab countries are extending a friendly hand towards Iran," he said.
"The reality is that a lot of the Arab regimes have always been very close to the United States and some of them have been dependent on the United States.
"It's for the benefits of these governments to strengthen ties with the Iranian government and be seen as independent."
Role in Iraq
In Iraq, Iranian influence - and involvement - is becoming pivotal to stabilising the country, five years after the US-led invasion that toppled the Saddam Hussein government.
In late January, US and Iranian representatives are expected to sit for a fourth round of discussions over Iraq's security.
Ahead of the talks, US generals who once accused Iran of arming and training Shia death squads, conceded that Iran has a constructive role to play in Iraq by curbing arms and fighters from crossing the border.
Hussein Hafez, a political science professor at Baghdad University, said the US has tried to isolate Iraqi Shias from Iran since 2003.
He said: "Iraq's Shia society is an integral element in the architecture of America's tie-up with Iran and vice versa. Iran is a major and influential state in the region. It is not possible any more for the American think-tanks and decision-makers to deal so naively and simply with a state like Iran."
Hafez says Tehran's ongoing support for Shia militias, which he believes undermine US efforts in Iraq, make US-Iran negotiations "inevitable".
"The Iranian-US dialogue in so many ways reminds me of the US foreign policy shift before its complete defeat in Vietnam; back then,the American strategy experts had noted that the US administration had changed its policies towards the countries of south-east Asia."
However, Iraq is unlikely to benefit from US-Iran talks, he said.
"Unfortunately, the US does not care about the interests of any of Iraq's factions. It is its own interests that it serves."
While the threat of war between the US and Iran has significantly subsided since a National Intelligence Estimate report said Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003, tensions remain high.
Bush's Iran terror warning earlier this week was preceded by a showdown between Iranian gunboats and US warships in the Gulf.
Iranians say such brinkmanship and speeches means that Tehran still distrusts Washington's intentions and is waiting for the US elections for any signs of a shift in strategy.
"Iran is wary of the US policy change," says Marandi in Tehran.
"I don't think that the Iranians really believe that this [US] administration has shifted its policy towards Iran and I think that they are waiting to see what the next administration will do."
With additional reporting by Doha Al Zohairy in Cairo and Alireza Ronaghi, Al Jazeera's Iran correspondent.