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Saudi Arabia and Iran Weigh Diplomacy


Many analysts say Saudi Arabia’s latest foreign policy moves are driven by Iran’s expanding influence in the Middle East.

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have gone through several phases during the past two-and-a-half decades. Many years of friendly ties ended with the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The Islamic Republic accused the ruling Saudi dynasty of corruption and acting as an “American puppet” with which it could not maintain friendly relations. Riyadh, in turn, accused Tehran of trying to destabilize Saudi Arabia by exporting Shi’ite Islam.

Chris Toensing of the Washington-based Middle East Research and Information Project says Iran had strained relations with the rest of the Persian Gulf as well.

“It has been a rocky relationship since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, particularly in the immediate post-revolutionary period when Ayatollah Khomeini had an overt policy of seeking to spread the Islamic revolution outside the borders of Iran. The Saudis along with the Bahrainis and some other kingdoms in the [Persian] Gulf were particularly concerned about that because they have large Shi’ite Muslim populations, which theoretically would have been the most susceptible to motivation and agitation from Iran,” says Toensing.

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran increased during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. The Saudi government provided substantial financial support to Baghdad and rallied other Arab states against Iran.

But relations between the two countries began to improve after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Iran sided with Kuwait and the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq.

According to Chris Toensing, the election of Iran’s moderate president Mohammad Hatami in the mid-1990s further eased tensions between Riyadh and Tehran.

“They actually started cooperating together very closely. That sort of entente was maintained until we started to see the fallout from the Iraq War and the rise of the Shi’ites in Iraq as an important political force. Once again, we started to see the Saudi royal family and other Sunni ruled regimes in the Arab world feel nervous about the potential impact of pan-Shi’ism in the Middle East,” notes Toensing.

Profiting from Trouble Spots

Many analysts point out that Iran is benefiting from turmoil in Arab trouble spots, such as Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Andrew Terrill, a national security expert at the U.S. Army War College, says Riyadh is concerned that Washington’s efforts to stabilize Iraq could benefit the pro-Iranian Shi’ite majority at the expense of Iraq’s Saudi-backed Sunni minority.

“Part of it is the fear that the United States is going to make a deal with Iran involving Iraq, which would be detrimental to their interests. I also think that they are worried about the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon. And we’ve seen the recent war in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah, where a lot of Shi’ites were getting very angry and excited over what can be done to support Hezbollah. All of these things have some effect,” explains Terrill.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah recently rebuked Iran for its troubled relations with the international community, saying it is “endangering” the Persian Gulf. Much of the Arab media have been swept by anti-Iranian and anti-Shi’ite rhetoric -- most of it, analysts say, spurred by Sunni-Shi’ite clashes in Iraq. These stories have been mirrored in the Iranian press.

But Stanford University’s Abbas Milani says Riyadh is concerned that the growing sectarian divide could boil over into a broader Middle East conflict.

“Anything that keeps Iran from becoming a hegemonic force is to their interest. Yet, I think, they don’t want a regional war between Shi’ites and Sunnis that would invariably engulf them. They have to tread a very careful line trying to weaken the Islamic Republic, while ensuring at the same time that the Islamic Republic doesn’t get involved in a regional war,” cautions Milani.

Anxious Moderates

According to media reports, Iranian moderates are equally worried about escalating tensions in the region and fear possible U.S. military intervention in Iran in response to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Washington says it wants to resolve the situation through diplomacy, but it has not ruled out the use of military force.

Professor Milani says Iran’s national security chief and main nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, recently urged Saudi officials to mediate between the United States and Iran.

“There was an attempt by the Iranians to solicit the Saudis because I think that the Larijani camp in Iran, which is considered the more moderate camp and very much feels ill at ease with [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, has been trying to lower the rhetoric a bit. They are concerned that this is escalating into something that will soon become a major confrontation. And they don’t want that to happen,” says political scientist Milani.

Other experts, among them Andrew Terrill of the U.S. Army War College, say Riyadh is concerned that a potential U.S.-Iran military confrontation could endanger Saudi Arabia’s economy.

“Remember, the eastern province of Saudi Arabia is very heavily Shi’ite. That is where most of the oil of Saudi Arabia is. If there was a bombing strike on Iran, you could see rioting and a difficult situation to control. They [i.e., Saudi Arabia] may see it in their interest to compete with Iran, but not to do so in a way that encourages the United States to engage in a military strike,” says Tirrell.

Still, many analysts agree that countering the rise of the Iraqi Shi’ites and Iran’s expanding influence in the Middle East will drive Saudi Arabia’s regional diplomacy for some time to come.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.