Monday, November 23, 2009

Is Confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia Inevitable?

Director's Comments:

Relationships between autocratic Saudi monarchs and theocratic Iranian Mullahs have always been precarious due to centuries-old religious animosities (Sunni Saudis versus Persian Shiites). However, in recent decades, the situation has been exacerbated as each side aims to establish a military supremacy in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region and undermine each other wherever the opportunity arises. For example, Saudi monarchs supported former Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein against the Mullahs of Qom during the Iraqi-Iranian carnage between 1980 and 1990.

The ruling elites in Tehran and Riyadh took sides in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s. They have supported their proxies in Lebanon and in Iraq for decades, but to a greater extent since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Now, they are taking sides along religious lines in a bloody conflict between the Yemeni Sunni central government and an oppressed religious minority (Shiites) segment of its society, located on its northern border adjacent Saudi Arabia. The Yemeni religious minority, known as Al-Hawthis, accused the Saudi government of aiding the Yemeni central government against them, and the Saudi government accused the rebels of crossing its Southern border and killing three soldiers on Nov. 3 2009.

The Saudi military with the help of Pakistan, according to Prince Khalid bin Sultan, deputy to Saudi Defense Minister, retaliated by bombarding the rebels’ hideout from the air and the ground. In addition, the Saudis sent their warships to patrol Yemeni Red Sea shores in order to make sure no arms from Iran reach the Yemeni rebellions. It’s hard to imagine that the Saudis would have taken this dangerous and provocative step unless they were assured by the US and/or Israel that one or both of them would defend the Saudis against any Iranian reaction. Israel and the US have been threatening to hit Iran’s nuclear facilities and this might be the best pretext to get that job done.

On the other hand, the Saudi monarchy may have done this on its own to draw Iran into a military confrontation so the US and/or Israel will have a pretext to destroy Iran’s military infrastructure. Iran is the only remaining major threat to the Saudi monarchy in the region and crippling Iran’s military power would allow the monarchy to become the dominant power in the Gulf.

In 1987, the Iranian pilgrims rioted during the Hajj rituals in Mecca, which led to brutal reactions by Saudi forces and resulted in more than four hundred deaths and scores of injuries. There have been reports that the Iranian pilgrims may riot during the Hajj this year and the Saudis are warning against any disruption during the Muslims’ holy season. As in many previous conflicts among Muslims, Islam is used as an effective tool to achieve political ends by regimes and terrorists alike.

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