The 3-decade-old cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia may be heating up, as evidenced by a purported Iranian plot to kill a Saudi diplomat in the U.S., Middle East analysts say.
The two Persian Gulf powers have been on a collision course since the 1979 Iranian revolution, and tensions between the two have increased over the past eight years amid rising oil prices, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon and the Arab Spring.
The Justice Department's announcement last week that it had foiled an Iranian attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador "is just the most recent episode, but it's also the most dramatic," said Toby Jones, Rutgers University professor of Middle East history. "This is just one moment in a recent history of escalation that began to develop at the beginning of this year."
Iranian officials have denied the plot. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Al-Jazeera on Monday that the U.S. manufactured the claim to "create conflict between us and Saudi Arabia."
But analysts say the conflict was there - and widening - long before the announcement.
"Riyadh and Tehran have always been very wary of one another, very suspicious of one another's motives, and really determined to see the other government weakened, if not eliminated entirely," said the Brookings Institution's Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department adviser on Iran.
"If Iran has been engaged in a campaign of trying to knock off Saudi envoys abroad - and the latest public statements suggest that Iran was involved with prior incidents against Saudi officials - then clearly, they have removed any sort of boundaries or restraints on their own willingness to take on the Saudis."
Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been separated by more than a body of water: The former is Persian, Farsi-speaking and Shiite Muslim; the latter is Arab, Arabic-speaking and Sunni Muslim.
Analysts say the most important difference could be their attitudes toward the region's status quo, which diverged in 1979 after Iran's secular, U.S.-backed government gave way to a Shiite Islamic regime determined to remake the Sunni-dominated Middle East in its own image.
"Iran wants to change the world, and Saudi Arabia wants to keep it very much as it is," said Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
That inherent tension has taken on new life as the Arab Spring has destabilized or toppled regimes throughout the region, opening proxy battles in places as diverse as Egypt, Syria and Yemen.
The contest has been starkest in Bahrain, an island kingdom off the coast of Saudi Arabia. Saudi forces entered Bahrain in March to help the ruling Sunni royal family quell a revolt from its Shiite majority, which was backed rhetorically by Iran.
High oil prices have given the two giants from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries more funds to pursue their interests abroad, and Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, which has heightened Saudi fears that Tehran could become more reckless in its meddling in the region.
According to an April 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable released last year by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, Adel Al-Jubeir - the Saudi ambassador targeted in the purported Iranian plot - spoke bluntly to his U.S. counterparts about the Saudi wish for the U.S. to strike Iran militarily.
"Al-Jubeir recalled the King's frequent exhortations to the U.S. to attack Iran and so put an end to its nuclear-weapons program," the cable said. " 'He told you to cut off the head of the snake,' he recalled to the [charge d'affaires], adding that working with the U.S. to roll back Iranian influence in Iraq is a strategic priority for the King and his government."
Iran appears to be winning the contest for influence in Iraq, where Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government has consolidated power, and in Lebanon, where the Shiite militant group Hezbollah toppled the Saudi-backed government this year.
But the Saudi intervention in Bahrain has raised the specter that Saudi Arabia could assert itself more actively if it feels its vital interests are being threatened.
"What's important is that the Saudis for the first time have put down red lines," said Amos Yadlin, Israel's former chief of military intelligence. "They say 'OK, propaganda from Iran is fine, the intelligence war is fine, but if you're going to change regimes in the Gulf, this is a red line.' "
Although the U.S. accused Iran of trying to take advantage of unrest in Bahrain, it has stopped short of suggesting that the protesters are aligned with Iran. Officials say the protesters have legitimate grievances that the government needs to address through political reform.
"To date, I haven't seen much evidence, if any, that the Iranians are terribly involved with Bahrain, but clearly that could change," Ms. Maloney said. "Same is true for Yemen. And the Saudis are putting up a lot of cash in Egypt, looking to mold the future transition. You're going to see a contest for influence that's going to get very ugly in a lot of places."
Mr. Jones, the Rutgers professor and author of "Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia," said he thinks an outright Saudi-Iranian military confrontation is unlikely, given the presence of U.S. and other international naval forces in the Persian Gulf.
However, he said he fears a scenario in which Iranian-sponsored terrorist attacks in the Gulf provoke a regional war that draws in the United States.
"I think the Saudis desire it," he said. "If you watched Saudi TV coverage of this past week, they've been almost giddy because this vindicates their narrative about Iran."
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