The US campaign to 'persuade' IranUS pressure on Iran to give up its uranium-enrichment program is taking shape in a variety of ways, with Saudi Arabia emerging as an important actor. However, like all pressure tactics in that part of the world, there is an element of subtlety that is not missed by Tehran, which won't necessarily respond as Riyadh and Washington would expect it to do. In this instance, Iran can be equally subtle, especially in soothing the security-related concerns of its Arab neighbors.
Two developments in the Persian Gulf region need to be watched carefully. First, it has been reported that US-led coalition naval forces have moved into the Saudi port of Ras Tanura. The stated purpose is to ward off possible seaborne attacks from al-Qaeda against the world's largest oil-loading terminal. But Iran will be watching carefully to see how much this US presence intimidates the Saudi leaders. Second, the US - along with ships from Bahrain, Australia, France, Italy and Britain - is conducting exercises simulating inspection of ships carrying illicit weapons-related materials. Iran must understand that the purpose is to intercept any nuclear- or missile-related shipments from North Korea.
Perhaps in response, Iranian state television has announced that naval maneuvers - named "Great Prophet Two" - would take place in the Gulf and the Sea of Oman from Thursday. "The war games are aimed at demonstrating the deterrent power of the [Iranian Revolutionary] Guards against possible threats," General Yahya Rahim Safavi, commander of the Revolutionary Guards, was quoted as saying.
No one should think that just because the US has not invaded North Korea or used its air power to neutralize Kim Jong-il's nuclear facilities in the aftermath of his nuclear explosion of October 9 it would behave as passively toward Iran. While a "nuclear" North Korea gradually became an acceptable reality for the national-security community in Washington over the past few years, the idea of a "nuclear Iran" remains much more problematical, at least for the hawks in and around the Bush administration. They have ensured that the issue of Iran's nuclear program is never far removed from the radar of the American public, as well as the international community.
President George W Bush, frustrated and disappointed at the ever-deteriorating security situation in Iraq, does not miss a chance to blame some of these woes on the Iranians.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's intermittent strident anti-Israeli rhetoric has strengthened anti-Iranian feelings in the United States. And recent reports that the Islamic Republic has successfully created a cascade of 164 centrifuges adds more weight to the argument of Iran's defiance. This is despite the fact that Iran has repeatedly stated that its program is for peaceful purposes and that it is exercising its rights under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
While examining the US exercises in the Sea of Oman and the Saudi decision to allow the US Navy into Ras Tanura port, one has to keep the preceding developments in mind.
The Saudi decision to rely on US forces once again - even though it carries a high risk of escalated resentment among Wahhabi hardliners inside the kingdom - might have been made for contradictory reasons.
First, the Saudi regime is convinced that its fight with al-Qaeda will only be resolved once one of the parties is eliminated. Thus the Saudis brought in the ultimate "big gun" - the US military- to safeguard their oil facilities and, in the process, possibly their own survival.
Al-Qaeda has already declared Saudi oil as a target to bring about the ouster of the regime. Given that the industrial world is seriously dependent on Saudi oil, and given that the US has no intention of witnessing the destabilization of Saudi Arabia, a powerful quid pro quo drives the Arab kingdom and the lone superpower toward each other. For the Saudi government, this might be the beginning of a revival of the US-Saudi friendship that cooled after the Gulf War in 1991.
Second, the Saudi government - along with other Persian Gulf sheikhdoms - doesn't want to see the emergence of a "nuclear Iran" in its neighborhood. These sheikhdoms do not necessarily share the frightening US and Israeli scenarios of Iranian menace. But they are concerned that their region will be further destabilized if the US or Israel were to decide to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities.
So the Saudis might be hoping that the presence of US ships in their port will send the "right" signal to Iran that it had better rethink its intransigence regarding its uranium-enrichment program. If Iran does not respond the way the Saudis anticipate, then US-led military exercise might do its share in "persuading Iran".
So the Bush administration is regaining the friendship of the Saudis and busy persuading other Gulf emirates to create some distance from Iran. However, Iran is not without friends, and the US and the Saudis will not have it all their own way.
Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, Virginia-based defense consultancy. He can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.