By William Maclean and Yara Bayoumy
MANAMA (Reuters) - Invoking religious faith and desert folklore, Gulf Arab officials proclaim wariness about a possible thaw in relations between their ally the United States and regional rival Iran.
A former Iranian official says the Islamic Republic and its neighbours should learn peaceful coexistence, without Gulf Arabs relying on the West for security. U.S.-Iranian détente could bolster stability from north Africa to central Asia, he says.
The exchange at a security forum in Bahrain at the weekend was hardly a meeting of minds, and few expect years of mistrust between Shi'ite regional power Iran and Sunni Muslim-ruled states led by Saudi Arabia to be dispelled in an instant.
Listening to it, Harvard scholar and former White House official Gary Samore said he expected forthcoming nuclear talks between Tehran and international powers, most of them allies of the Gulf Arabs, to be "a very protracted and difficult negotiation with uncertain results".
But two days of debate between strategists from Iran and Gulf Arab states at the Manama Dialogue, the Gulf's top security conference, produced an unusually open give-and-take, short on vitriol, albeit laced with thinly veiled criticisms.
The meeting of military officers, diplomats and analysts in Bahrain was the first time public figures from Saudi Arabia and Iran had publicly debated security in the Gulf since a November 24 interim nuclear accord between Tehran and world powers.
That agreement has raised the possibility of a détente in three decades of U.S.-Iranian confrontation, dismaying some Gulf Arab officials who worry that this might eventually enable Iran to fashion a new regional hegemony at their expense.
While Saudi-Iranian mistrust was evident at the Bahrain event, wisps of evidence suggested a mellower atmosphere.
Former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal said it was encouraging that some Iranian leaders had dropped rhetoric denouncing Big Satan (the United States) and Little Satan (Britain), terms used since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
He said Saudi Arabia had "great hopes" of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the architect of Tehran's overtures to the Gulf Arabs and world powers. Saudi Arabia welcomed Iranian religious pilgrims with open arms, but "we would like that relationship to evolve and not be limited to pilgrims".
Prince Turki and some serving Gulf Arab officials reiterated accusations that Iran interfered in Arab states "from Bahrain to Palestine", above all in Syria.
Abdullatif al-Zayani, secretary-general of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), said Iran's overtures had been in the right direction. Now, he said, it had to "walk the talk".
For example, Iran could send a good signal by withdrawing forces from Syria, where, Gulf Arabs say, they are fighting for President Bashar al-Assad. Tehran denies military involvement.
Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Nizar Bin Obaid Madani was among several Arab officials who likened the search for trust in Iran to a mirage for travellers in a desert.
"We are desert people," he said. "We hope what we hear from our brothers in Iran is a wadi (watercourse), with no more fear, no more instability."
Prince Turki welcomed a suggestion by former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossain Mousavian that the United States could play a role in forging regional security cooperation between Gulf Arab states, Iran and Iraq. Mousavian advocates such an arrangement, which does not exist at present. The GCC excludes Iran and Iraq.
"That's wonderful news," the prince said, although he then qualified his praise. "Whether we like it or not, whether it is the American fleet or the Russian, British, French or Indian fleets, whatever you like, they are going to come into the Gulf for their own interest and be there," he said.
Traditional Gulf Arab defence strategy has been to welcome Western powers to patrol the waterway and sometimes to station military forces at bases onshore. Iran, which sees the Gulf as its backyard, has long argued that the region should organise its own security collectively, without outside powers.
Mousavian, sharing the stage with Prince Turki, said U.S. forces could not remain in the region indefinitely.
But he acknowledged a limited, temporary role for U.S. forces, saying: "To establish a regional cooperation system in the Persian Gulf region, the role of the U.S. would be vital. None of the other world powers has the resources or influence and more importantly the willingness to play such a role."
An Iranian foreign ministry adviser sitting in the audience did not comment on Mousavian's remarks.
Mousavian said that after three decades of hostility neither the West nor Iran had succeeded in achieving "their respective maximalist goals".
Turki later described this as a welcome admission of Iran's failure in exporting its Islamic revolution.
(Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Alistair Lyon)