Saudi Arabia and Iran in Iraq fix

Posted in Broader Middle East , Iran , United States | 20-Dec-06 | Author: Ehsan Ahrari| Source: Asia Times

Dr. Ehsan Ahrari is member of the WSN International Advisory Board.

With Iran enhancing its influence in Iraq - even by creating a "mini-Iran" in the southern section of the country - Saudi Arabia is left playing diplomatic catch-up in trying to influence events.

This underscores the power differential between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran is a real power in Iraq, while Saudi Arabia remains a "wanna-be power". It also illustrates that Iran's strategy in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq was well crafted to take into account the possibility of the US faltering there.

The Iranians figured that the US administration was more concerned about toppling Saddam than establishing a stable order in Iraq and that it lacked a cohesive post-conflict plan. Iran thus concluded that chaos would follow. What it could not have anticipated was the magnitude of that chaos, a train of events set in motion by the US deciding to abolish the Iraqi army and de-Ba'athify the country.

In the broader context, Iran was driven by another objective: ensuring that it would not become the next victim of President George W Bush's doctrine of "regime change". This, more than anything else, would have driven Iran either to exploit the Iraqi chaos to its advantage, or to make its own contribution to worsen it. Either way, political and religious realities were overwhelmingly in favor of Iran.

Sixty-five percent of the Iraqi population is Shi'ite. Iran and Iraq have had decades of close cooperation and extensive exchanges on religious issues. In the realm of politics, Iran played a constant role in nurturing and supporting anti-Saddam forces to catch the dictator off guard. Consequently, no neighboring country knew the political dynamics of Iraq better than Iran.

In the post-Saddam era, two Shi'ite clerics were destined to work directly or indirectly to substantiate Iran's political objectives. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, is a pro-Iranian cleric. His Badr Organization was a nuisance to Saddam and in the past three years has emerged as a major militia.

The US had cooperated with Hakim's forces during Saddam's era. Perhaps based on that record, or maybe because it is getting desperate about finding ways to stabilize Iraq, the Bush administration attempted to co-opt Hakim. It is not clear whether it succeeded.

Muqtada al-Sadr, meanwhile, has emerged as a force unto himself. As the heir of the Sadrist legacy, Muqtada is a proponent of vilayat-e-faqih (rule of the clergy), a model that prevails in Iran. He is not making much noise about this issue at present as he is focused on ousting the US from Iraq. This objective is very dear to the hearts of the Iranians, although Muqtada is not particularly pro-Iranian. Muqtada's Mehdi Army, directly or indirectly, is playing into the hands of Iran through its major role in the sectarian war.

Meanwhile, Iran activated its own Quds forces - the special command division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps - early in the post-Saddam era. These forces specialize in intelligence operations and, most important, in unconventional warfare.

For political and religious reasons, Iran never had any intention of leaving Iraq alone. Even if the US were to succeed in stabilizing Iraq, Iran was still going to challenge America's presence there. The fact that the United States has faltered in Iraq has made Iran's task of enhancing its own influence considerably easier.

From the perspectives of gathering intelligence, there is little doubt that the Quds have done well. What is not clear is whether they played any role in enhancing the capabilities of Sunni insurgents and jihadis to take on the Americans and the Iraqi security forces.

If Quds forces did play a role in training Sunni insurgents in asymmetric tactics, Iran has, indeed, taken a major gamble, as in all likelihood the insurgents will turn against Iran once the Americans are out of the country. But it is also possible that Iran has calculated that ousting US forces is crucial enough to justify the risk.

The overall outcome of Iran's complicated maneuvers in Iraq is that its influence is definitely on the rise, and it will focus on constantly bleeding US forces, thereby increasing the prospects of withdrawal.

Back in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia does not fare very well in this power game. Even though the Sunni Arab population of Iraq is about 25%, the Saudi rulers have no way of knowing what percentage of that population really supports al-Qaeda and other Islamists. All such forces are acutely opposed to Saudi Arabia.

It is possible that Saudi intelligence forces are cooperating with the remnants of Saddam's security forces in an attempt to sabotage Iran's strategic objectives. But this is a very tall order, considering that Iranian intelligence forces have most likely penetrated all regions of Iraq. Equally important, they have been in Iraq for a long time and know the terrain well.

Besides, Saudi Arabia cannot afford to sabotage Iranian objectives without finding out what the US is really up to in Iraq, and all indications are that it will be around for some time yet.

Riyadh would thus conclude that, instead of conducting a trench war with Iranian intelligence, it would be preferable to rely on conventional diplomacy for stabilizing Iraq - and that this would be better done quietly behind closed doors. Even as an advantaged actor, Iran would very much prefer that.

Iranian leaders could not have been amused by King Abdullah of Jordan's public musings about a "Shi'ite crescent" a few months ago. They are not interested in overplaying their card by confronting Sunni states on that issue. They are much too concerned about resolving their multi-dimensional conflict with the Bush administration and minimizing the chances of their regime being changed. Cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia would serve these goals.

For the US, such cooperation, though it is not an optimal development, may not be too harmful to its interests. As a long shot, Iranian leaders may even decide to persuade the Saudis to use their influence in Washington to persuade the Bush administration to engage Iran in comprehensive dialogue. There is little evidence at present that Riyadh has started such a campaign, but it could happen in the coming weeks.

Ehsan Ahrari can be reached at His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. His website: