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December 11, 2011

Iran and the new Arab world

Muthanna Al-Qadi

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The news of an alleged assassination attempt on the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel Al-Jubeir, in October read like a first-class movie script, but the manner in which government political elites dealt with the incident signaled that Washington and other European capitals did not see the matter as a joke.

Despite the story's seemingly simple formulation noted even in the American press, and the surprising use of Mexicans, Iranians, and members of organized crime to carry out a political assassination, the collection of evidence — if it is proved to be correct — points to Tehran.

The purported plot to kill the ambassador throws light on a hidden war between rivals. Unrest broke out just weeks ago in the Awamiya region of eastern Saudi Arabia, which has a Shiite majority. Saudi officials charged that the protests were driven by "the hands of outsiders", and said the perpetrators of the violence were loyal to a "foreign country", an oblique reference to Tehran.

Iran understands the importance of the prestige accumulated by Saudi Arabia — its political, economic and religious stature for Muslims — which makes it the front line in expanding Persian influence. Iran always highlights the kingdom as the most important player among its Middle East adversaries, and sees the kingdom as the largest obstacle confronting the Islamic Republic — the world's only Shiite state — in fulfilling its role as the guardian of Shiite Arabs, especially those in the Gulf.

Without a doubt, Iran has found in the "Arab spring" a golden opportunity to strengthen its foothold in countries where it has struggled for more than 30 years to "export the Shiite revolution". It does not seem a coincidence that Iran is targeting countries surrounding Saudi Arabia geographically (Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, Iraq, the Gulf states, and Yemen), thereby exploiting Arab revolutions to implement its agenda for acquiring the resources of the region.

The Gulf "shield" — Saudi Arabia was very firm in this regard — was intended to send troops to Bahrain to quell protests, deter the risk of revolutionary fever in the street and give a clear message to the neighborhood that it will not allow anyone to interfere in the security of the region. Saudi Arabia also did not hesitate in supporting Yemen's president and his military against Houthi Shiite dissidents.

In the same context, Riyadh has quietly supported armed groups in Lebanon to address the unique status of Hezbollah in the Lebanese arena, a role confirmed by secret US telegrams disclosed by Wikileaks. Here, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal was reported to have proposed an "Arab force" in Lebanon backed by the West to rein in Hezbollah after it seized parts of Beirut in 2008 and to prevent Iranian hegemony in Lebanon in addition to its alliances in Iraq and Gaza.

Saudi Arabia is also taking advantage of the disturbances underway in Syria, which prompted Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz to issue a strongly-worded statement in August against President Bashar Assad, asking him to "stop the bloodshed", and then to remove the Saudi ambassador from Syria. These moves reflect a shift in Saudi policy towards Syria.

It is difficult for Riyadh to contain what it perceives as the "Shia octopus ", but without a doubt the kingdom will benefit from the fall of the Assad regime and an alliance with its new — likely Sunni — leadership, thus closing the gate through Damascus to the Arab world that Iran has used to achieve its objectives in the Middle East.

Amid all this tension, international forces continue in their constant quest to impose further sanctions on Iran and complete its political and economic isolation. Tehran itself suffers from internal problems, of which its fatal weakness may be the ongoing conflict within the ruling regime that is evolving into a conflict inside one wing of strict conservatives between the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Furthermore, the non-Persian peoples' struggle to lift themselves out of tyranny into freedom and independence is viewed by some as a broad base from which to break up Iran into nation-states similar to the former Soviet Union. Washington is trying hard to portray the Islamic Republic as an imminent rising danger in the region, recently selling Saudi Arabia an arsenal of weapons worth billions of dollars. The deteriorating economic situation weakens Iran in the face of additional crises.

This is what Khamenei referred to in a recent meeting with members of the Iranian government, warning that the economic situation is the most important vulnerability faced by Iranian society. International statistics indicate that the Iranian economy did not grow last year and experts predict zero percent growth in the current year.

Returning to the assassination plot, decision-makers await the results of the investigation. The United Nations General Assembly resolution passed last week against Iran and its "conspiracy" to assassinate the Saudi ambassador was criticized by China and Russia —Iran's strategic ally — for lacking any legal basis.

Western capitals are taking the opportunity to condemn Iran for trying to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, accusing it of "exporting instability" in the region. Most recently, Iran was accused of supplying former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi with chemical weapons. Not to mention the world's stand blocking Tehran's ambitions to expand its disputed nuclear program. This comes at the instigation of Israel, which has not stopped beating the drums of a new war in the region that would target Iran's nuclear plans and delay them a few years.

It seems that Saudi Arabia has adopted the US solution in dealing with the crisis, officially asking Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon to inform the UN Security Council of the "heinous conspiracy" against the Saudi ambassador in Washington and explicitly accusing Iran of being behind the plot.

As the "new Arab nation" is born, Iran is not going to cease its attempts to interfere in this revolutionary fervor and will remain a source of concern for Arab regimes. On its face, this will appear as sectarian conflict, but in reality it is a deep regional political divide.

Published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT, December 7, 2011

Muthanna Al-Qadi is editor of Middle East affairs at Al-Quds daily newspaper based in London.

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