Saturday, April 19, 2008


Syria decided on Tuesday to postpone releasing the findings of its investigation into the Feb. 12 assassination of Hezbollah operations chief Imad Mughniyah just as Iranian media outlet, Fars News Agency, reported through its Persian language service that Syrian authorities had detained a Saudi Arabian intelligence official for allegedly participating in the assassination.

According to the Fars report, the Saudi official’s Syrian girlfriend bought the two vehicles used in the bombing that killed Mughniyah. We are also told that Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a top Saudi national security official, masterminded the operation.

While Damascus is refraining from officially implicating Riyadh in the assassination, the Iranians have decided to escalate matters with the Saudis, their chief rivals in the Arab/Muslim world.

In fact, the conflicts in both Iraq and Lebanon (and to a lesser degree in the Israeli-Palestinian theatre) represent a struggle between the Saudis and Iranians for influence over the predominantly Arab Middle East. However, this struggle did not begin with the rise of Iran and the Arab Shia when the Baathist regime was ousted in Iraq at the hands of the United States nearly five years ago.

Instead, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry truly began at the foundation of the Islamic republic in Tehran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Up until that point, Saudi Arabia saw itself as the virtually unchallenged leader of the Arab/Islamic world.

Saudi Arabia claimed unrivaled status as the preeminent nation-state in the largely Sunni Islamic world, given that its founding principle was Islam (albeit Wahhabi) coupled with the fact that that the Kaaba was housed in Mecca while the Mosque of the Prophet was located in Medina.

Alongside its identity as an Islamic state, Saudi Arabia is also a pro-western country with the largest oil resources in the Middle East. More importantly it was a key U.S. ally in the region. But, the autocratic nature of the regime coupled with its western alignment made Saudi Arabia a target of resentment among emerging radical Islamists.

The establishment of a radical Islamist (though Shiite) regime in Iran, which overthrew the pro-western Iranian monarchy of the Shah, led to the rise of the worst Saudi nightmare -- a regional state with comparable energy resources and a much larger military force.

This new power challenged Saudi Arabia for leadership of the Islamic world by employing a radical brand of Islam that appeared more attractive to the Arab/Muslim masses who were disillusioned with what they perceived as the moribund version of official Islam promoted by a corrupt Saudi regime.

For the longest time, the Saudis took comfort from the fact that the Persian and Shiite character of the clerical regime in Tehran would stifle an Iranian challenge.

Another key factor that kept the Saudis comfortable was the fact that Iraq was ruled by Saddam Hussein. This created a buffer separating the Iranians from the Arabian Peninsula. Furthermore, Iraq (a Shiite majority state dominated by the Sunni minority) kept Iran occupied with eight years of war and forced the newly formed Islamic republic to temper its regional ambitions.

Tehran therefore reached an informal and uncomfortable accommodation of sorts with Riyadh.

The most that the Iranians were able to do was help create Hezbollah in Lebanon and align with Syria. It was not until the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which removed a major threat to the Iranians, that Tehran was presented with an opportunity to revisit its regional ambitions by empowering pro-Iranian Iraqi Shia in Baghdad.

As a result, the return of the Iranian/Shiite threat has been the single largest security nightmare for the Saudis.

Realizing that there is not much that can be done to check Iranian gains in Iraq, the Saudis are trying to strike back in the Levant by creating a coalition against Hezbollah while forcing Syria out of the Iranian orbit. Here is where Saudi and Israeli interests converge.

A behind the scenes cooperation has emerged between the two with Prince Bandar playing a key role. This collaboration would explain why the Iranians linked him to the Mugniyah assassination. Emboldened by their growing influence in Iraq, the Iranians now feel that they can afford to up the ante with the Saudis, and hence the leak via Fars.

It is unlikely that the Iranians or the Saudis will come to blows because of these rising tensions, but their rivalry has just intensified. To what degree the Saudis can play the Persian/Shiite card against Tehran and how far the Iranians can exploit Saudi alignment with the United States and Israel against Riyadh in this race for regional domination remains to be seen.

From Washington’s point of view, so long as it exists, this conflict is perfect and one that it can use to advance its own regional interests.

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