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FACTDROP: Iran, Saudi Arabia Tensions Spur Fears of a Proxy War


Iran, Saudi Arabia Tensions Spur Fears of a Proxy War

Πηγή: WSJ
Oct 17 2011

Rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are raising concerns that a renewed proxy war between the two powers could break out in Iraq, where the expected withdrawal of at least some U.S. military troops at the end of the year is expected to leave a new vacuum of power.

One of the side effects of the Arab Spring uprisings has been an upending of the regional equilibrium between Saudi-backed and Iranian-backed governments and political actors. Riyadh blames Tehran for much of the political instability on its borders in Bahrain and Yemen, while Iranian officials have watched its popular support in the region falter amid support for Syria's crackdown on anti-regime protesters there.

Iraq, a border state for both Saudi Arabia and Iran, is a likely new location for such a confrontation given the two powers' recent history in supporting sectarian warfare in that country and their current drive to shore up their political and military might at a time when each feel vulnerable, say Iranian and Arab analysts.

The Obama administration has expressed its concerns about Iran's attempts in recent months to expand its influence in Iraq and the broader Middle East.

"Iran is looking for an opportunity to use the cards it has lined up in the region—the Revolutionary Guards refer to it as their 'grand bargaining strategy,'" said Mohsen Sazegara, a founder of the Revolutionary Guards who is now a vocal opponent of Iran's regime.

Last week's announcement that Iranian figures were accused of hiring a Mexican hitman to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington sent shock waves across the Arab world, where Sunni Arabs are already weary of Shiites Iran's influence in places like Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

In Washington on Sunday, Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, said the Obama administration should put sanctions on Iran's central bank in response to the alleged plot.

Iran has denied the U.S.'s charges, saying they are aimed at creating tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But Saudi officials have used the accusation to bolster their contention that Iran has for years been trying to encircle the Sunni kingdom with unfriendly—and non-Sunni—governments.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has tried—and failed—to stanch Iran's influence in Syria and Lebanon. Still, Riyadh felt that the large U.S. military presence in Iraq was enough of a bulwark to contain Tehran there, amid the rise of a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

The alleged terror plot comes at a bad time for Iran's diplomacy. As it tries to improve relations with Arab countries, it has suffered a series of setbacks from the Middle East to Africa and now the West.

The ongoing uprising in Syria has presented a particularly tough challenge for Iran's foreign policy because if Iran supports the Syrian opposition it risks losing a key ally in the Middle East but its support for President Bashar Assad is costing Iran public opinion on the Arab street.

Arab youth activists, the backbone of the pro-democracy uprisings, have accused the Quds Force—the most elite and secretive branch of the Revolutionary Guards—of aiding Mr. Assad in its crackdowns against dissent. They say the force has offered tactical training and internet monitoring capabilities to Syria.

Iran's unpredictable diplomacy—from allegations of domestic terror plots to its meddling in Iraq—stems from its shadow system of governance, where the foreign ministry's strategies can be undermined and overridden by the Quds Force and where diplomatic contacts are kept secret. This complicates negotiation attempts by the West and Arab world.

The Quds Force, for example, have complete control over Iran's policy and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Iranian diplomats. "The footsteps of the Quds Forces can be traced any where in the world where Iran has a presence and this creates a real dichotomy in Iran's foreign policy because often even the foreign minister is kept in the dark," said Mohamad Reza Heydari, a defected Iranian diplomat in Norway

A report by the Associated Press on Saturday that the U.S. could drop its plan to keep thousands of troops in Iraq under a new security deal with the Iraqi government has raised fresh alarms in Saudi Arabia about Iraq become a pawn in Iran's battle for influence in the region.

Iran "is a direct and imminent threat not only to the [Saudi] kingdom, but to Sunnis across the region," said a Saudi official familiar with regional policy-making. "They have shown this time and time again, in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. If Washington can't protect our interests in the region, we'll have to do it ourselves."

Washington has been trying for months to broker a new military arrangement in Iraq amid fears that Iran-backed militias in the country will fill the security vacuum and threaten the nation's sizable Sunni and Kurdish minorities. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who governs over a coalition of Iranian-backed Shiite parties, apparently can't convince hard-line Shiites to accept an extension of U.S. military presence.

At the height of Iraq's sectarian civil war in 2006 and 2007, Saudi Arabia viewed the country as one of Iran's most daring attempts to gain influence in what has historically been Saudi Arabia's diplomatic backyard. To counter it, Riyadh was actively funding Sunni Iraqi fighters, while Saudi citizens traveled to Iraq in large numbers to fight against Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

Those clashes died down, amid the U.S. security surge and an agreement by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad to give Sunnis more spots in the new national security apparatus and political landscape.

Arab officials believe that the pipeline of funds and aid from Iran to Iraqi Shiites is even stronger than five years ago, and the network of support to Iraqi Sunnis from Saudi Arabia is easy to restore, especially if U.S. troop presence diminishes, as Riyadh has been wary of being blamed for supporting militants who cause American military casualties.

"Take [U.S. troops] out of the equation and you're looking at a possible new field of play," says one Arab diplomat.

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