Saudis working to curb Iran's influence

"The conflict is not Sunni-Shi'ite. It's a Persian-Arab conflict."

iran missile test, the b (photo credit: AP)
iran missile test, the b
(photo credit: AP)
Worried by Iran's deepening involvement in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia has been working quietly to curtail the Shi'ite nation's influence and prevent the marginalization of Sunni Muslims in the region's hotspots. Analysts say the tug-of-war between the two Mideast powers signals a new chapter in an uneasy relationship, one that has swung over the years between wariness and, at times, outright confrontation. On the surface, both countries have maintained the civil front that has marked ties since a thaw in relations in the early 1990s. "But events on the ground indicate that the two countries are working against each other as their differences are played out outside their borders," said Ibrahim Bayram, a reporter for the Lebanese An-Nahar newspaper, who follows Hizbullah. Saudi Arabia, a key US ally in the region, has been putting its economic and diplomatic weight behind groups in direct confrontation with factions backed by Iran in every major conflict zone in the region, Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. The kingdom has also expressed concerns over Iran's nuclear program. The US contends Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, which Iran denies. But Saudi Arabia has fears even about a peaceful nuclear program because of the possible environmental threat and the potential for conflict between Iran and US troops stationed in Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. A Saudi official said Iran has sent messages expressing its desire to work with the kingdom to resolve the area's conflicts. But the official said Iran's actions speak louder than those messages, making Saudi Arabia cautious in dealing with Tehran. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The tense situation has also made the kingdom more determined to explore ways to find a settlement to Mideast upheavals on its own. The kingdom is supporting the US-backed Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who is facing street protests organized by Hizbullah meant to topple the government. The Saudis are also backing beleaguered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is trying to work out a new unity government with Hamas, which is allied to Iran. Saudi analysts say Iran is now trying to wrest the traditional leadership role Riyadh has played in the region. But Saudi Arabia will "not allow Iran to expand at its expense as a big regional power," said Dawood al-Shirian, a Saudi journalist. "Iran is acting as a Persian state and not as an Islamic state," he said. "The conflict in the region is not a Sunni-Shi'ite conflict. It's a Persian-Arab conflict." The view from Iran is different, said Mashaallah Shamsolvaezin, an adviser to the Middle East Strategic Studies Center in Tehran, which is closely affiliated with the Iranian Foreign Ministry. He said a change in Iranian foreign policy to focus on improving economic and political ties with Middle Eastern countries instead of Europe has prompted the Saudi fears. He said the political shift is not coming at the expense of traditional powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He blamed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "radical" rhetoric for Tehran's failure to send a reassuring message about its policy shifts. "His statements not only have not helped. They have hurt Iran's strategic policies," he said.