Intelligence Brief: Tensions Increase Between Iran and Saudi Arabia

Posted in Iran | 21-Jan-07

The latest political developments in the Middle East demonstrate the rising power of Iran. Tehran is involved in three primary conflicts in the Middle East. First, it has extensive ties with the Shi'a movement Hezbollah, which Iran uses as an instrument of leverage in Lebanon and as a tool to pressure Israel. Second, Iran is involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through its support of Hamas. Third, Iran's influence now extends into Iraq due to its relationship with the Iraqi Shi'a community. In addition to these three conflicts, Iran is also pursuing a controversial nuclear research program that could very likely be an attempt to acquire nuclear weapons in order to increase its regional power drastically.

During the past few years, Iran has worked to create alliances with both state and non-state actors who share the common goal of altering the political balance in the Middle East. As a result, Iran has formed alliances with Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and various factions in Iraq. It is incorrect to say that these are "Shi'a alliances." While the Shi'a component plays a large part in this coalition, it is not the core fundament. Hamas, for example, is a Sunni group and Syria is led by an Alawite family with a majority Sunni population. Instead, these actors have joined together due to the common interest of changing the present regional balance of power.

Iran's maneuverings in the Middle East have naturally raised concerns among the Arab states. The Arab countries are the traditional power brokers in the Middle East, and they see Iran as a threat to their regional influence and internal stability. This is particularly true for those countries that have large Shi'a minorities.

Saudi Arabia is especially concerned about Iran's rise. On the surface, official declarations made by both countries foster the perception that their relations are friendly. Seyed Mohammad Hosseini, Iran's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, recently met with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz and said that "there is a suitable atmosphere for promotion of bilateral cooperation in all fields." The crown prince replied by claiming that an expansion of bilateral cooperation could bring benefits to the entire Muslim world. Despite these statements, a larger struggle for power is forming, which was evident during the most recent conflicts in the Middle East.

In Saudi Arabia, many Wahhabi religious leaders warn of the "Persian onslaught" and consider Iran a threat to Saudi interests, internal stability and the Muslim world. Already, the rise of Iran may be causing internal divisions within Saudi Arabia. Some analysts have claimed that the recent resignation of Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal, was a signal of an internal shift among the ruling family. Turki is considered a moderate when it comes to Iran and was supportive of dialogue with Tehran rather than confrontation. According to this theory, the rest of the ruling family supports the policy of preventing Iranian encroachment.

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