At a time when Washington is pressing UN nuclear inspectors to release classified intelligence information that confirms Iranian advances in nuclear weapons technology, new tensions have arisen, both at the regional and international levels, that implicate Tehran, or at least rogue elements within the regime. Is Revolutionary Iran set on a fresh collision course with its neighbours?
When violent demonstrations erupted in the village of Al Awamiyah in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia a few weeks ago, wild accusations flew from all sides, some claiming that police used live ammunition to suppress the uprisings, while others concentrated on Sunni-Shiite tensions. In the event, Saudi police used rubber bullets to disperse rioters, which injured 14 individuals, including 11 security personnel.
In a country that boasts tight security measures, one wonders whether such incidents are home-grown, relying on custom-tailored weapons and Molotov cocktails, or on outside assistance. Prince Nayef’s Interior Ministry blamed a “foreign country”, a code name for Iran, and declared that Riyadh would “strike with an iron fist at anyone who tries to do such acts or who has been misled to do such acts”.
Interestingly, Saudi intelligence sources relied on telephone intercepts of calls coming in from Iran and Iraq that helped them identify alleged culprits, and promptly arrested a few dozen. Several of these monitored conversations steered young Saudis to stand up to the police to spread sedition. It was risky behaviour and, perhaps, even reckless, given that Riyadh deployed sophisticated monitoring gear.
Indeed, Saudi authorities have honed such skills and applied high-technology methods to conduct advanced eavesdropping, which means that little of what transpires in the kingdom escapes its capabilities.
To be sure, one ought to further suppose that the Saudi government is not about to permit local adventurisms, feign from arresting scores that threaten public security, nor even allow its vital energy installations to be jeopardised.
There are layers of redundancies built into the Saudi energy security infrastructure centred around the recently created 35,000 strong Facilities Security Force (FSF), which means that no one can even approach such installations, which render uprisings futile.
Still, beyond accusations that Iran is somehow involved in the putative eastern province revolts, Washington alleged that elements serving within the Iranian Revolutionary Guard units devised a diabolical plan to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s envoy to Washington, Ambassador Adel Al Jubair. Even if the ‘technical’ aspects of the plot, which involved a Mexican drug-trafficking network, sound bizarre, few should assume that so-called Iranian intelligence officers are incapable of concocting wacky schemes.
Regrettably, and although Iranophobia is prevalent in Washington, so is Saudiphobia in Tehran. In fact, self-appointed politico-religious gurus tirelessly work to promote Iranian interests, which chiefly focus on long-term Sunni-Shiite rivalries for political hegemony.
Succinctly stated, those interests necessitate interference in the internal affairs of other countries that, and this must be acknowledged as clearly as possible, are not tools in foreign hands. In other words, it was not necessary for American intelligence forces to imagine a fantastic plot like the one that targeted Al Jubair to illustrate how dangerous the rift between Tehran and Riyadh is, and how precarious it may yet become.
As the champion of Shiite interests, Iran may conclude that Saudi Shiites fall under its responsibility, though that is certainly not the case.
According to reliable sources, the most recent estimates of the Shiite communities in Saudi Arabia (2005-06) stands at around 1,320,000, which represents about 8 per cent of the native Saudi population of nearly 17 million individuals, and 6 per cent of the total population of the kingdom when expatriate (6.3 million) figures are added.
Iran is adamant that Saudi Shiites are neglected, and while there is some truths to such accusations, much of the discrimination practised in the past has been altered under King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz. Truth be told, the Saudi monarch has gone out of his way to facilitate reconciliations at home and within the region, welcoming Shiite leaders in his majlis and hosting successive Iranian officials in his palaces, only to face fresh uprisings and similar treachery.
Consequently, and even if the latest Washington plot was an imaginary operation meant to act as a smokescreen by shifting the blame onto others, Saudi authorities understand that the kingdom is in the bull’s eye, with Iran still determined to assert its perceived regional goals. Plainly stated, and this is worth repeating, Tehran meddles in Arab affairs from Morocco to the Arabian Peninsula not only because it concludes that the Muslim leadership mantle is up for grabs, but also because it perceives inherent weaknesses within the Arab world that increase opportunities.
A few years ago, Morocco decided to sever diplomatic ties with Iran, something that several Arab states emulated, on and off. Still, while Tehran behaves as if its reach was not blatant interference in Arab domestic affairs, the evidence to the contrary is fairly strong. Inasmuch as the latest Tehran-Washington schism adds to overall tensions, it is important to remember that no Arab government interferes in domestic Iranian affairs, which speaks volumes. To its credit, Riyadh has endeavoured to reduce Sunni-Shiite political differences, with some success. Though time is running short, will Tehran reciprocate, to avoid further clashes and a new catastrophy?
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs.