A few weeks ago, an adviser to Iran's supreme leader called Bahrain Iran's 14th province. Not only did Bahrain react indignantly, but--more important--so did Saudi Arabia. For, even as a potential conflict between Iran and Israel grabs headlines, tensions have been building between Tehran and Riyadh. The Saudis fear both Iran's nuclear program and its expansionist agenda.
And that's not all. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 launched a far-reaching competition between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia for control of Islam and the ummah, the worldwide community of Muslims. Since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president, Iran has increased its expenditure of money, energy, and time on proselytizing populations, from Africa to the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia, more than any other Sunni country, feels threatened by this new wave of Shiite proselytizing. Saudi social affairs minister Abdel Mohsen al Hakas has called it unacceptable, and King Abdullah himself has accused Shiites of trying to convert Sunnis, pointing the finger at Tehran. The matter is of vital concern to the kingdom, which prizes its position as the cradle of Islam--all the more since Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah are now among the most popular figures in the Arab world.
Iran's expansionist strategy is not limited to religious affairs. Hundreds of Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah fighters who got their military training in Iran have infiltrated the Gulf since last year in order to "militarize" the Shiite communities of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. Their mission is to prepare to destabilize these monarchies, targeting vital national interests and Western interests (both embassies and businesses) in the event of a U.S. or Israeli military strike against Iran.
Citing "British sources," the Kuwaiti daily Al Seyassah reported in September:
European intelligence services have located at least 450 Lebanese Shiite fighters who have already visited the Gulf between January and July 2008, often using false passports, from Lebanon or from Syria, Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt. Others were able to move directly from Iraq to Kuwait and the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, which is predominantly Shiite. Lebanese immigrants in these countries allegedly confirmed the presence of these agents, and have reported them to the authorities.
The situation is all the more tense in that Saudi Arabia is convinced that Iran is a threat to the Saudi regime. King Abdullah sternly warned Ahmadinejad during the latter's visit to Riyadh in 2007, "We welcome cooperation and investment, but we will not tolerate interference in internal affairs."
In fact, the kingdom's Shiite minority, about 10 percent of the population, is concentrated in the oil-rich eastern region of the country. The regime cannot afford a rebellion or terror attacks there. In 2007, to protect its oil installations, Riyadh created a 35,000-man specialized security force.
While Saudi Shiites remain cautious, they are nonetheless listening to their Iranian big brother and may be ready to contest their second-class citizenship. In December, clashes erupted in the Saudi province of Al-Qatif between the police and Shiite demonstrators responding to Hezbollah's call to support the Palestinians in Gaza. And on February 23, violence broke out in Medina between Shiite and Sunni worshippers.
Iran is threatening Riyadh, moreover, not only by playing the Shiite card, but also by playing the terrorism card. Tehran helps various arms of al Qaeda with funding, supplies, training, and sanctuary, and al Qaeda is a deadly enemy of the Saudi regime.
Thus, some Saudi prisoners who belong to Al Qaeda in Iraq have confessed that they were trained in camps supervised by the Al Quds Brigades, a special branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. In Lebanon, some Saudi terrorists from the al Qaeda-linked Palestinian group Fatah al-Islam, which is supported by Syria and fought the Lebanese army in 2007, entered Lebanon via Iran. Among them was a high level target, Abdallah Al Bichi, one of al Qaeda's religious theorists, who had been living in Iran.
Finally, close to 40 percent of the 85 terrorists on Riyadh's "most wanted" list are based in Iran, having entered the Islamic republic just in the past six months. Of the 85, 83 are Saudis and 2 Yemenis. In a country as controlled as Iran, it is inconceivable that the regime is not complicit in hosting these men, most of them affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, whose goal is the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy.
To counter Iran, Saudi Arabia has built a Sunni axis, cultivating relations with the six Gulf monarchies (though Qatar is wobbly), Jordan, and Egypt. This development was supported by the Bush administration and even implicitly by Israel. (High-level "secret" meetings between Saudis and Israelis have taken place since 2006, and it is not by chance that Riyadh publicly supported Jerusalem in its war against Hezbollah in the summer of 2006.)
At this point though, the Saudis are concerned about the Obama administration's overtures to Iran and are afraid that a deal will be done to their detriment. Hence the Saudi diplomatic offensive to rally support in the region. Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal recently exhorted his Arab counterparts to stand up to Iran's regional and nuclear ambitions. And Riyadh is courting Iran's main ally in the Middle East, Syria, in the hope of isolating Tehran: The March 11 meeting in Riyadh between King Abdullah and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, along with the heads of state of Egypt and Kuwait, suggested a rapprochement.
Tehran's two-pronged strategy of military/terrorist expansion and Shiite proselytizing is aimed at controlling the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia is seeking to defend itself, both physically and spiritually. Riyadh's jitters are a reminder that the Iranian regime remains a source of concern not just in Western capitals but also in large portions of the Muslim world.
Olivier Guitta is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a foreign affairs and counterterrorism
consultant. His work appears at www.thecroissant.com.