Before the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraq had been something of a counterweight to Iranian power in the Middle East. Now with Saddam gone, Iranian political influence has been expanding, not just in Iraq, but in the region. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, Saudi Arabia is not happy about the shift in what had been a delicate balance of power.
Empowering Iran was not one of aims of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Nevertheless, analysts say, it has become one of its unintended consequences.
In an interview with a pro-Saudi group, Flynt Leverett, former senior director for Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council, said it has been especially worrisome for Saudi Arabia.
"I think that the Iraq war has been almost disastrous from a Saudi perspective," he said. "It has completely upset the balance of power in the Gulf, enabled Iran's rise, created a dynamic in post-Saddam Iraq where the most powerful political forces are Islamist Shia with ties to Iran."
Chas Freeman, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, says Iran's growing influence is not just among the Shi'ite factions in Iraq, but extends to other pressure points in the region.
He said, "Friends of Iran are now in power in Baghdad, Hezbollah has become the dominant political force in Lebanon, and Western attempts to isolate Hamas and the government it runs in Palestine have forced that government and Hamas into the arms of the Iranians."
"So on every level, Iran has seen its influence in the region enhanced. And this is naturally disturbing to other countries in the region, which see it as producing a serious imbalance in power," he added.
The rivalry is rooted in both religion and politics. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Muslim Arab state controlled by a royal family. Iran is a country of Persian Shi'ite Muslims that has been under the theocratic rule of Islamic clerics since 1979. Both are major oil-producing nations.
Secular Iraq, under the autocratic thumb of Saddam Hussein, was kind of a counterweight that kept regional power in check. Analysts say Saudi Arabia was quite content to see Iran and Iraq slug it out in a bloody war from 1980 to 1988 in which thousands died but no one emerged the clear victor.
Afshin Molavi, a fellow at the New America Foundation, says both Iran and Saudi Arabia harbor ambitions to be leaders in the Islamic world.
"In many ways, Saudi Arabia views itself as a pan-Islamic power, it doesn't view itself only as a Sunni power," he said. "And, interestingly, Iran is sometimes characterized as the vanguard of the Shia of the region, but Iran also likes to think of itself as a pan-Islamic power. So in some ways, both of these countries are vying for the mantle of leadership in the Muslim world."
Saudi Arabia has had a security relationship with the United States since the 1979 Iranian revolution.
George Friedman, chief executive officer of the private intelligence company, Stratfor, says there is an upside [something positive] for the U.S. in the growth of Iranian influence.
He said, "The United States is not unhappy to see Iran herding Saudi Arabia back into a position of dependency on the United States. The United States is happy to calm their fears. The United States is also happy to see them afraid again of the Iranians."
"So one of the interests Saudi Arabia now has is to protect it [the U.S.] from Iranian power. One of the interests the Americans have is to protect the Saudis from Iranian power. And therein lies a marriage, and diplomatic marriages have been based from worse," he continued.
There are signs that both countries recognize that the sectarian fighting in Iraq has the potential to erupt into a wider regional or even a global pan-Islamic conflict.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was the Saudi ambassador to Washington, has recently held three meetings with Ali Larijani, national security adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He has also met with officials in Russia and the United States.
But Chas Freeman says the Arab world does not share the U.S. level of concern about Iran's alleged bid to build nuclear weapons.
"In the broader Arab world and within Saudi Arabia, concern about Iranian nuclear weapons is quite muted. That is a matter of extraordinary concern in Israel and, by extension, in the United States. It's not the main item of concern to the Saudis. They're concerned about Iranian political influence and the ability of Iran to influence, if not control, events in the region," said Freeman.
Nevertheless, analysts say, Western governments are concerned that if Iran gets nuclear weapons capability, it could set off a Middle East arms race in which Saudi Arabia and perhaps Egypt try to get nuclear weapons themselves. Israel is already believed to be a nuclear power, although it has never publicly admitted it.