Two Powers Still Standing in the Middle East

Unrest in Egypt and Syria allows Iran and Saudi Arabia to compete for primacy in the region.

The Kingdom Tower in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia at night
The Kingdom Tower in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia at night (Gerico Canlapan)

Civil unrest in the tiny Persian Gulf state of Bahrain spread so fast last month that neighboring Saudi Arabia deployed troops to help the allied monarchy suppress the revolt. According to Wikistrat‘s latest analysis, the intervention indicates just how scared of Iran the Saudis truly are.

Now that both Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak have gone, Saudi Arabia is the only Sunni power in the region still standing. But its influence is eroding. The Saudi backed government of Lebanon was undermined by Iranian ally Hezbollah earlier this year. The unrest in Bahrain, as far as the Saudis are concerned, is part of an Iranian conspiracy against their kingdom.

While there has been no evidence to date that Tehran is indeed involved, Wikistrat’s Middle East Monitor for April warns that Iran might seek to solve its internal problems by instigating conflict overseas, either by aiding Syria in its suppression of anti-government dissent or supporting the Shia uprising in Bahrain.

Hardline Iranian officials are openly calling for such an intervention while the Saudi embassy in Tehran was firebombed by protesters who were supposedly outraged by the Gulf Cooperation Council’s police action in Bahrain.

It is not a vital interest of Iran that the Bahraini government fall or that Saudi forces be forced to leave but these are certainly goals. It is difficult to judge whether the exceptionally heated rhetoric coming from Iran indicates an actual desire to become deeply involved and if so, what the limits to this intervention would be.

No matter the very real grievances of Bahrain’s Shiites, Saudi Arabia has made it the front in its increasingly overt struggle for influence with Iran.

“The interesting wild card here,” according to Wikistrat, “is Egypt’s recent move to begin talks with Tehran aimed at — presumably — normalizing relations in the post-Mubarak era.”

Egypt has long been seen as Riyadh’s junior partner in opposing Iranian influence in the region and the move will likely make the Saudis all the more angry at the American for abandoning the deposed despot. If Hosni Mubarak goes on trial in Egypt, expect Riyadh to respond with even more vehemence and paranoia.

The Saudis blame President Barack Obama for forcing Mubarak out of office and don’t particularly care for his administration’s championing of human rights and reform. If Washington is to keep its most vital relation in the region strong, it may have little choice but to tolerate the cruel oppression of pro-democracy activists whom it is naturally inclined to support.

The two partners still share strategic interests however. Both America and the Saudis want to keep the oil flowing, the Gulf free of Iranian influence and neither wants the Islamic theocracy to go nuclear and embolden its terrorist proxies in Palestine. “Saudi Arabia cannot let Iran become the only Gulf power to have nuclear weapons.”

If the Obama Administration cannot or will not prevent Iran from acquiring atomic weapons though, “the House of Saud could just as easily decide that now is the time to turn Israel loose on Iran’s nuclear facilities.”

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