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Media Watch | Iranian-Saudi Rivalry Simmers In Spite of Smiles

by PAUL MUTTER

16 Aug 2012 02:20Comments

Press Roundup provides a selected summary of news from the Farsi and Arabic press and excerpts where the source is in English. Tehran Bureau has not verified these stories and does not vouch for their accuracy. Any views expressed are the authors' own. Please refer to the Media Guide to help put the stories in perspective. You can follow breaking news stories on our Twitter feed.

AhmjadGreetingMecca.jpg 2:20 a.m. IRDT, 26 Mordad/August 16 President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visiting Mecca for a meeting with other Muslim heads of state following a personal "invitation" from Saudi King Abdullah, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency, was conspicuously seated next to the king at the start of the conference. The impetus for the meeting of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), however, reveals how much of the tension in the region brought about by the Arab Spring is being shaped by hostility between Riyadh, strongly backed by the United States, and Tehran. The OIC is expected to vote to suspend Syria's membership, notwithstanding Iran's opposition to the move. (Reuters, meanwhile, reports that Ahmadinejad faces domestic criticism for choosing to attend the summit just days after the deadly earthquakes in East Azerbaijan province.)

Saudi Arabia's foreign policy since 2011 has been aimed at containing perceived Iranian efforts to exploit the popular ferment in the region, which has even trickled into its restive Shia-majority, oil-rich Eastern Province. Saudi Arabia wishes to court the new (Sunni) Islamist rulers who have gained from the Maghreb to its own Gulf waters, but as the Guardian notes, "It has its own concerns about the rising regional influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose focus on electoral politics represents a major challenge to the Saudi model of partnership between clerics and hereditary rulers." Unlikely rumors in the Iranian press that the House of Saud is mulling "constitutional" reforms as a result of these developments are likely seeking to play up the spectacle of an autocratic monarchy cheering on self-determination and noninterference in Syria after criticizing the United States for insufficiently supporting ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and then deploying special police forces to suppress Saudi and Bahraini protestors closer to home.

In response, Saudi Arabian media outlets such as the state-run Al Ekhbariyah satellite TV channel have countered with reports accusing Iran of fermenting unrest in the Levant to distract the world from its own domestic crackdowns on dissent and charging the ayatollahs with "hand[ing] over the bread and butter of the Iranian people to Hezbollah."

Saudi Arabia has been seen as the guiding hand in the Bahraini monarchy's crackdown on demonstrators who have been castigated alternately as American, Israeli, or Iranian stooges. The Bahraini press has advanced the alleged links to the Islamic Republic in particular, despite a lack of hard evidence that Tehran has offered protestors much more than self-serving rhetorical support. The conservative Resalat newspaper recently ran an editorial reiterating previous criticisms of Saudi Arabia's military presence in Bahrain, denouncing the House of Saud as "helpless and affiliated pawns of the United States and the Zionist regime." And Press TV has been editorializing against Saudi Arabia's new intelligence chief -- Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, who has been famously close to previous American administrations -- describing him as "the linchpin" between the CIA and Mossad.

Syria is the most urgent point of contention for the two countries, though; as Tehran's primary Arab ally, it is a far greater prize than Bahrain. Iranian weapons, money, and advisers have all been reported in Syria, as have Saudi intelligence and funding. The Saudis are seeking out rebel groups who might make themselves amenable to their objectives in Syria; Tehran maintains strong support for Assad but is constrained both militarily and diplomatically. In reaction to the growing push by Western and Gulf states against Assad, Iran is now attempting to revive support for the abortive U.N. peace plan. Fars News Agency reports that the Iranian Foreign Ministry will be hosting a diplomatic forum on Syria. Of the key regional players in the conflict, Lebanon publicly declined the conference invitation, while Russia and Iraq sent delegates; Saudi Arabia and Turkey were apparently not invited at all. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi broadcast the Islamic Republic's initiative in the Washington Post, decrying the actions of "some world powers and certain states in the region [that are] using Syria as a battleground for settling scores or jostling for influence."

Asian News International reports that Iranian National Security Council head and primary nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili announced ahead of a visit to Lebanon that "what is happening in Syria is not an internal issue but a conflict between the Axis of Resistance on one hand, and the regional and global enemies of this axis on the other." He continued, "Iran will not tolerate, in any form, the breaking of the Axis of the Resistance, of which Syria is an intrinsic part." As Tim Lister of CNN noted, the loss of Syria as an ally would have broader consequences for Iran and its confrères in the region: "Hezbollah's nightmare is a hostile Israel on one side and a hostile Sunni Syria on the other, even if its internal position in Lebanon is secure."

Saudi Arabia's place in the nuclear imbroglio between Israel and Iran is less discussed, but since the Saudis are widely believed to tacitly support an Israeli strike on Iran (while publicly denouncing the possibility), it is likely that they will follow the Americans' lead; "sources" cited by Xinhua claim "that Riyadh may permit Israel to use its airspace in a coordinated operation with Washington." Still, unconfirmed reports of tensions between the Saudis and Americans over Israel's war plans have surfaced. The Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth reports that Saudi Arabia has warned the Obama administration that it will intercept any Israeli planes that violate its airspace in the event of a strike on Iran. Unnamed Israeli officials cited in the report blame a White House pressure campaign for forcing them to back away from a military option, though the Israeli government publicly denies that it has received any such warning.

The report, if true, actually suggests that U.S. relations are more strained with Israel than they are with Saudi Arabia. And more importantly, the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council continue to broadcast a deterrence strategy aimed against Iran. In the second such story carried by a major U.S. news outlet this summer, the New York Times reports that U.S. officials are said to be expanding a regionwide missile defense system directed at Iran with new weapons sales to Kuwait. The Wall Street Journal detailed other specific steps of this nature being taken last month in Qatar.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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