- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2006

LONDON

The saga of Nawaf Obaid, a security analyst and adviser to the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, illustrates the trepidation of Iraq’s neighbors over its future.

In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, Mr. Obaid said the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia would prompt that country’s leaders to give money, arms and supplies to Iraq’s Sunni militias to counter Tehran’s support for Iraqi Shi’ite militias.

The article raised a storm of official protest in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Press Agency, a government entity, said Mr. Obaid’s article does “not represent in any way the kingdom’s policy,” which is “to support security, unity and stability of Iraq with all its sects and doctrines.”

Within days, Mr. Obaid was dismissed from his advisory post. He obviously touched a raw nerve.

In an apparently unrelated development, Prince Turki also left his Washington post and flew back home this week. He is expected to take up the job of his ailing brother, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.

“Saudi Arabia has been, mostly unofficially, supporting Sunni Islamist movements around the world for a long time with the philosophy that their money buys them some minimal influence and even immunity from criticism from them,” said Graham Fuller, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA.

Although it is not clear exactly what the kingdom is doing in Iraq, he said, it is thought to be aiding the Salafi subsect of Sunnis “and maybe the Islamic Party of Iraq as well.”

Riyadh’s relationship with Sunni political groups in Iraq has attracted little notice. But as early as 2004, Sheik Saleh al-Luhaidan, chief justice of Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Judicial Council, was caught on videotape at a government-sponsored mosque encouraging young Saudis to go to Iraq and wage jihad against the Americans.

“The lawfulness of this action is in fighting an enemy who is fighting Muslims and came for war,” Sheik al-Luhaidan said on the tape.

The Saudis’ concerns have been heightened by the improving relations between Iraq and its Shi’ite neighbors Iran and Syria.

During a recent visit to Tehran, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani was quoted by Iranian state television as saying that his country is in dire need of Tehran’s help in establishing security and stability in Iraq. Meanwhile, the Iraq Study Group proposed that the Bush administration engage Iran and Syria in diplomacy on Iraq’s future.

“Were the Americans or any outsider forces to exit Iraq, the weapons that the factions have, along with the free-for-all that is prevalent in most of Iraq now, will simply result in a chaotic bloodbath,” said Abdurrahman al-Shayyal, a Saudi analyst.

Iran has influence over several Shi’ite political parties controlling southern Iraq. Iranian officials have hinted that any U.S. military strike against Iran’s nuclear program would have consequences for Iraq.

At the same time, they have complained privately that Saudi Arabia is taking the silent war for influence in Iraq into Iran as well, by pumping money to Iran’s ethnic-Arab majority province of Khuzestan and encouraging people there to convert from Shi’ite to Sunni Islam.

Flush with near-record oil receipts, Iran and Saudi Arabia can afford to continue their confrontation for regional dominance. Iran is a regionally resurgent Shi’ite theocracy while Saudi Arabia stands as the self-proclaimed champion of Sunni Islam and views Iran as a regional and religious trespasser.

“The Middle Eastern cold war is pushing Washington, allied with the Arab conservatives, into a contradictory stance in Iraq, having installed a Shi’ite, pro-Iranian government there but remaining unable to work with this new reality on a geopolitical level,” said Juan Cole, a University of Michigan scholar and president of the Global Americana Institute.

“Iraq is caught in the middle of this new cold war and seems likely to be the major victim of it.”

The U.S. inclusion of Iran in an “axis of evil” and accusations that it has destabilized Iraq and is sponsoring a “Shi’ite axis” across the wider region have terrified Washington’s staunch Arab Sunni allies such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Even Syria, a firm ally of Tehran, is less than jubilant over the prospect of Iranian influence lapping against its eastern border.

The invasion of Iraq demolished the regional security architecture that prevailed in the 1980s and removed Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, whom Persian Gulf Arabs viewed as the cork protecting a staunchly Sunni-dominated region from the spread of Iranian Shi’ite influence.

Iran is no longer the boxed-in country under fire it was in the first years after its revolution, when Sunni Arab money kept Iraq’s war machine oiled and on the offensive against the nascent Islamic republic.

Saddam’s aggression against Iran in September 1980 sparked the bloody Iran-Iraq war that killed an estimated 1 million people over eight years of trench warfare.

Iran’s new leadership has done little to avert confrontation aside from making soothing rhetorical overtures toward its Arab neighbors.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has not repeated the diplomatic successes of his centrist predecessor, Mohammed Khatami.

Mr. Khatami invited Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to Tehran and hosted a successful meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1998, but Mr. Ahmadinejad’s Persian chauvinist utterances have heightened the Arabs’ perceptions of vulnerability.

By stressing the anti-royalist, populist strains that run through Shi’ism, Mr. Ahmadinejad has refocused a confrontation between the Islamic republic and the Gulf kingdoms that had been in remission.

There is little the oil-rich but politically fragile and sparsely populated Persian Gulf monarchies can do against a muscular, security-centered Iran numbering 70 million and intent on assuming leadership of the region.

Earlier this month, Iran’s national security chief, Ali Larijani, counseled the Arabs to eject the U.S. military from American bases in the region and join Tehran in a regional security alliance. It was an unprecedented statement and a sign of Iran’s growing confidence in its might.

Further proof that Tehran’s message is being heard in the capitals of U.S. allies such as Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates was their nonparticipation in recent U.S.-led maneuvers in the Gulf that were calibrated to send a warning to the Islamic republic.

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