The hidden war
looks at the regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia and its implications
Saudi Arabia has traditionally opted for a calculated, non- confrontational approach to counter Iran's ascendancy as a key regional power player. Parallel to this quietest approach, however, it launched what one Saudi observer described as "a hidden war" against Iran, aimed at influencing alliance making in the region. In particular, an aggressive rhetorical campaign in Saudi-financed press and affiliates emerged, painting Iran as the troublemaker of the Middle East, a major threat to regional stability, and an agent of chaos in many Arab countries, including Iraq and Yemen.
Writing in the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper last Wednesday, Saudi commentator Abdallah Nasser Al-Otaibi warned readers of "an Iranian scheme to dominate the region". "There was a 50-year scheme outlined by Khomeini to control the Middle East. Now they have 20 years left," wrote Al-Otaibi. But his words did not end there. He went on to advise Arab regimes to "support a Sunni separatist movement in Iran like Al-Ahwaz in the west or the Baluchists in the east". "To face up to the Iran tide we need to outline a 50-year plan for a Sunni revolution," he wrote.
Abdel-Rahman Al-Rashed, a senior commentator in the daily Asharq Al-Awsat, wrote that at the heart of Tehran's regional policies is "to use and finance Al-Qaeda, extremist Shia groups in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen". A third commentator, Ghassan Sharbel, warned against the emerging Iranian-Turkish alliance. He called on Arab regimes to stand up to Iranian attempts to create a new regional order by bringing Syria into the Arab fold and isolating Iran.
Such writings reflect the dominant narrative in Saudi- financed and pro-government press of what came to be known as the "axis of moderates". The unifying factor here is the utilisation of sectarianism as a mode of interpreting and understanding events in the Middle East. Media coverage of the Iranian-Saudi rivalry tends to hype up sectarian sentiments, painting both Iranian and Saudi policies as inspired purely by sectarian motivations. Yet upon closer inspection what initially appears as a conflict that reflects a Sunni-Shia rift is in fact a pattern of alliance making with motives far less sectarian in nature. Thus sectarianism is being employed as a tool to achieve political ends of regional domination.
An informed Iranian scholar described this approach as "a high risk strategy" with disastrous consequences that could spell over in many places in the Middle East, including in Saudi Arabia itself. In this strategy, argues Masoud Asadollahi, a Beirut-based academic, Iran, not Israel, is depicted as the key enemy of the Arabs. To construct such a perception, he went on, one needs to mobilise the public along sectarian lines that would eventually lead to sectarian strife, pitting Shia against Sunnis. "This excessive preoccupation with 'the Shia threat' to the Arabs is only meant to divert attention from Israel's atrocities at a time when you have the most racist and most fascist government in Israel," Asadollahi told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Saudi scholar Fouad Ibrahim, who has written extensively about Sunni-Shia relations, concurs. "As Israel becomes a member of the moderate bloc, then it must be Iran, the kernel of evil, that is threatening the stability and peace in the region," he said.
The Israelis make no secret of their effort to exacerbate sectarian tensions for its own ends. Israeli writer Akiva Eldar wrote in Haaretz last July on how that "the Iranian threat" would push Arabs closer to normalisation with Israel. "The Arab leaders' original interpretation of their initiative was that normalisation would wait for Israel's withdrawal from the territories," wrote Eldar. "Things changed after the priorities changed: the common Iranian threat pushed aside the common Israeli enemy."
Efforts to demonise and thus isolate Iran and its axis are not new. A Time magazine article entitled "The struggle to isolate Iran" dated 6 February 2007 revealed how the Bush administration, with the help of an axis of moderate Arab states, sought to form a united front against Iran. Time learnt then that; "the administration is seeking a new united front with responsible (US-allied) Arab regimes and Israel to help counter the extremist camp of Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas." According to Time, in this narrative Iran is cast as a major regional threat and an agent of chaos in Iraq. Events such as the July War in 2006 on Lebanon, the Israeli aggression on Gaza, Iranian nuclear ambitions, and most importantly in Iraq, have all exacerbated tensions.
Another tactic for containing Iran is creating fissures along sectarian lines. The latest round of confrontation in Yemen -- the sixth since trouble first erupted in 2004 -- is an example of this policy. Joining the chorus of Arab regimes that stir fears and suspicion of Tehran's policies in the region, Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh charged that Iran was using his country as a front to settle scores with the Saudis. Dismissing the Houthi rebels as Iranian stooges has been a convenient way to strip their cause of legitimacy.
Indeed, presenting the conflict as sectarian has been the preferred narrative in both the Saudi and pro- government press. One informed Saudi observer said that Riyadh encouraged Salafist Sheikhs to propagate the Wahabi doctrine amongst the Zayidi, who are Shia. They urge Yemeni Salafists to get involved in military operations against Houthi followers. A Houthi follower based in Eden revealed how Salafist ulama both in Yemen and Saudi Arabia were deeply involved in exacerbating the conflict through issuing fatwas condemning Houthi followers and calling on their followers to join in war against them. This might explain the sectarian bile regularly directed against Houthi followers by Sunni clerics close to Saudi Arabia. Also Saudi-run media paint the conflict along purely sectarian lines, pitting the Iran-backed "Shia" rebels against the "Sunni" state, backed by Saudi Arabia.
The troubled relationship between the Iran and Saudi Arabia remains the heart of issue. It has been characterised as an ongoing simmering conflict that surfaces from time to time on the pages and screens of both Saudi and Iranian financed media. For example, when Iranian students demonstrated in front of the Saudi embassy in Tehran to protest against Saudi intervention against Houthis, the Saudis remained silent. When both Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad made remarks about what they said was "immoral treatment and inhuman treatment of Iranian pilgrims by Saudi authorities", the Saudis, angered by the remarks, responded with a double message: advising Iran not to politicise the hajj, and at the same time warning it would confront any attempts to disrupt the holy ritual.
Tehran moved quickly to defuse the tension. Hence the dispatching of Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to Riyadh Wednesday, to clear the "misunderstanding" caused by Ahmadinejad's remarks. The 1980s witnessed episodes of ugly confrontation between Saudi authorities and Iranian pilgrims who used to take the hajj as a venue to protest against the US and Israel.
There are four factors defining the Saudi-Iranian relationship: the security of the Gulf, Iran's nuclear ambitions, Iraq, and most importantly the American factor in the relationship. Although the sectarian aspect is one among many other components that define the relationship, the media hypes up the sectarian factor as the sole explanatory factor to the rivalry.
Many observers believe that the outcome of the simmering Saudi-Iranian conflict is likely to play a crucial rule in shaping the future map of alliances in the Middle East. It is unlikely that both countries will engage in open confrontation, but the conflict will probably continue and will reveal itself in different shapes and forms. Saudi Arabia wants to limit Iran's influence in the region, but it knows that its influence cannot be ignored or erased.