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Anne Penketh: 'Coalition of the Frightened' grows ever more alarmed

World Focus

The Israelis refer to them disparagingly as the "coalition of the frightened". They are the Arab nations whose leaders are strong US allies and they are afraid of a nuclear Iran.

As Iran has proceeded apace with its uranium enrichment programme that provides a possible pathway towards a nuclear weapon, the Arab states in the region have become increasingly alarmed. Core American allies such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia will be watching President Obama's moves with close interest in case the geopolitical map is shaken up and rearranged, with Iran at its centre.

American policy under George Bush has already strengthened Iran as an unintended consequence of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, who sought to build up his own arsenal of weapons of mass destruction to protect himself from the Persians at the gate.

You can be sure that the Arab leaders will be warning the new US administration against taking any actions that could reinforce a Shia Muslim regional superpower with a taste for independence and revolution. The Sunni Muslim Arab states are not alone in voicing concerns about a possibly nuclear-armed Iran – despite Iranian claims that its intentions are purely peaceful – and have not been standing idly by. Egypt, which like Iran is a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has been talking about stepping up its nuclear programme, as has Turkey. The Bush administration in its final days signed a nuclear co-operation agreement with the United Arab Emirates, intended to help the Gulf monarchy press ahead with nuclear power over the next few years.

Some analysts have seen the moves as the beginning of a nuclear arms race that could spread across the Middle East.

All the signs are so far that President Obama will tread carefully. At his news conference on Monday, he stuck to generalities and has not yet named an Iran envoy who would oversee the direct talks between the two states which have not had diplomatic relations for 30 years. Dennis Ross, who has been tipped in Washington as the most likely contender to deliver the Obama administration's "tough, direct" diplomacy, is apparently mired in turf battles linked to his brief.

It could be that Mr Obama will wait until after the Iranian elections in June, which might produce a more amenable President than the firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, before laying out his Iran policy in detail. But European officials are hopeful that, now the Bush administration has gone and taken with it the threat of regime change in Tehran, the Iranians might be open to a face-saving accommodation that would let them back down with dignity.

Then again, as an America scholar put it yesterday, "a Bush policy with a kinder, gentler face will go nowhere".