The two Middle Eastern powers have been battling for preeminence in the Muslim world for decades but the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate a Saudi Arabian ambassador has heightened the tension between them during a time of intense regional upheaval.
The new drama has arisen as Saudi Arabia and Iran seek to outmaneuver each other in matters such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the future of Iraq and the bloody political uprisings sweeping much of the region. Their mistrust, fueled in part by sectarian strain, is sharpened by Iran’s nuclear development program and Saudi Arabia’s long-standing ties to the U.S., Tehran’s most potent enemy.
If the assassination scheme is true it would “represent a very serious ratcheting up of what has emerged as one of the most critical … confrontations in the Middle East,” said Rami G. Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. “Iran backs a revolutionary political export movement that scares the daylights out of the Saudis.”
The animosity between the Sunni Muslim monarchy in Riyadh and the Shiite Muslim theocracy in Tehran has played out for years in diplomatic back channels and in proxy conflicts from Iraq to Lebanon. A 2008 State Department cable quoted the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, the target of the alleged assassination plot, as saying his country wanted the U.S. to launch military strikes on Iran “to cut the head off the snake.”
With their vast oil reserves and ultraconservative schools of Islam, the two countries are now adjusting strategies to address upheavals that have threatened autocrats in nations including Syria and Bahrain, transforming the political calculus of the Arab world. As they recalibrate regional agendas, Saudi King Abdullah and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also face internal pressure for change.
Since the 1979 revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed shah, Iran has assumed the mantle of a revolutionary Islamic state thumbing its nose at Washington and its chief regional ally, Israel. The Shiite republic’s brash polemics and uncompromising stance toward the West have won admiration and partly inspired young activists across the region.
The Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia, guardians of the great shrines of Islam, has often found itself on the defensive, inextricably tied to its unpopular political patron, the United States, and unable to react nimbly to events.
For all their disputes, they are much alike: strongly religious oil powers buttressing their repressive governments against voices of reform. Iran could feel additional strain if the assassination plot allegations draw new international economic sanctions that increase its isolation. Recent statements clearly suggest this is on the minds of Iran’s leaders.
“The Americans have launched a stupid mischief,” said Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian parliament. “Maybe they are after creating an artificial crisis and creating problems among regional countries.... There is no reason for Iran to carry out these childish actions.”
Strain between Saudi Arabia and Iran has already grown as a result of the “Arab Spring” movement that unfolded across the region early this year. Riyadh sent hundreds of troops into neighboring Sunni-controlled Bahrain in March to help crush an uprising by the majority Shiite population. Although the protests against Bahrain’s royal family erupted over Shiite claims of discrimination, the Saudis said Iran orchestrated the unrest in a ploy to destabilize the Persian Gulf through sectarian strife.
Syria is another crucial test. Syrian President Bashar Assad, a longtime ally of Iran, has for months ordered his security forces to brutally suppress antigovernment protests. The ruling Assad family belongs to the Alawite sect — an offshoot of Shiite Islam — and is pivotal to Iran’s influence not only in Syria but also in Lebanon, where Tehran backs the militant group Hezbollah as a counterbalance to Israel.
If Saudi Arabia were to provide financial and weapons support to the protesters in Syria, the majority of whom are Sunnis, it could severely weaken or even topple Assad, leaving Iran without an important proxy. Such a gambit by Saudi Arabia would also suggest that its biggest ally, the U.S., was prepared to be more aggressive in pushing Assad from power and checking Iran’s regional ambitions.
“This could break the Syrian-Iranian bridge,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah of Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “The downfall of Assad’s regime would eventually revive Saudi Arabia’s role in the region at the expense of Iran.”
Hilal Khashan, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut, said the U.S. arrest of an Iranian American suspect in the foiled assassination comes as a Syrian opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, is lobbying for recognition from foreign governments.
“This means that the U.S. is ready now for a more active role in Syrian affairs,” he predicted.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran worsened after the 1979 Iranian revolution when the theocracy of Ayatollah Khomeini challenged the legitimacy of the Saudi royal family, underlining centuries of sectarian resentment. The tone spurred a race between the two countries for influence in a Middle East seeking to economically and politically capitalize on petrodollars.
There is no suggestion of imminent military conflict between Riyadh and Tehran, but they have been entangled for years in Shiite and Sunni bloodshed in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and in the support of opposing Palestinian factions. Iran has been blamed for a number of assassinations and terrorist attacks in the region, including the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. service members.
Passions have been further inflamed by Iran’s nuclear development program, which the West and Saudi Arabia say is aimed at producing nuclear weapons. Tehran says the program is for civilian and medical purposes and says Saudi Arabia is part of a conspiracy to contain Iran. A unified front against Iran would also repair U.S.-Saudi relations, which have been strained by Washington’s support for pro-democracy movements across the region.
Political analyst Khouri and others doubt that Iran was behind the latest assassination attempt.
“If the Iranians were involved in this kind of plot, I don’t think they’d chose this kind of guy to do it,” Khouri said by telephone from the United States. “They’re much more professional.”
Fleishman reported from Cairo and McDonnell from Beirut. News assistant Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo bureau and special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.