Thursday 15 December 2016

Iran’s rising influence raises Saudi eyebrows

While the post-sanction era seems prosperous for Iran, it seems worrisome for Iran’s major foe, Saudi Arabia, which is being confronted by Iran’s rising influence in the Middle East and the anticipation of Iran achieving a nuclear weapon soon.

Iranian influence in the region is growing and the trend is due to a number of developments. First, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese militant organization, have been operating beyond Iran’s border and inside other Arab states, namely Syria and Iraq. Secondly, Iran was successful in establishing its influence substantially within the Lebanese social fabric and there is a strong presence of Hezbollah within Lebanon. Thirdly, the Iran-influenced government of Iraq consults with Iran on about every matter, even on petty issues. Fourthly, a pro-Iranian regime, led by Bashar-al-Assad, is still holding onto power in war-torn Syria. Fifthly, Iran has been increasingly attaining a good control over the Shia (Shiite) community within Bahrain which has a Shia majority population under the Sunni monarch. Sixth, Iran has helped the Houthis, an armed group in Yemen, successfully capture the Yemeni capital, Sana.

Last but not the least, the nuclear deal among the six nuclear powers and Iran was a landmark political, diplomatic and economic achievement for Iran, creating the possibility for strengthening Iran’s regional influence.

All these factors are making Saudi Arabia take unilateral steps for the first time, bringing a change in its long practiced policy of multilateral actions (along with western allies) against Iran.

Iran does not possess any real economic strength at the moment because of the effect of decades-long economic sanctions (withdrawn very recently) imposed by the international community. The Gulf policy makers, especially those in Saudi Arabia, fear that if an economically weak Iran has the ability to directly engage inside several countries in the region and wreak havoc, what would happen when, in the new post-sanction era, it does acquire the economic strength like that of the Arabian Gulf’s Arab states?

Moreover, once Iran starts to gain an economic advantage, it can push to consolidate and expand its already established influence in Lebanon. Iran certainly would not shy away from showering Hezbollah (Lebanon-centric militant organization) with financing in order to facilitate expansion of Hezbollah’s activities beyond Lebanon and into the greater Middle East.

A strong Iranian economy can also encourage Iran’s political elites to back Shia (Shiite) communities within the neighboring Sunni monarchies in order to make these countries less stable; similar to what Iran has been currently doing within Bahrain.

An economically solvent Iran may not hesitate to facilitate daring sectarian-moves across the region. It would not be surprising if Iran backs further militiamen engagement to take control of the capital of an independent state in the region, similar to what it did in Yemen through Houthi militants, who represent the voice of a very small portion of the Yemeni population.

Iran’s major foe, Saudi Arabia, now fears that the Iran nuclear deal might not block Iran’s path to the bomb. Rather, the deal may act as a cover to Iran’s effort to build nuclear weapons. The Iran nuclear deal has already been interpreted by Saudi Arabia to be a window opened for Iran to pursue peacefully its nuclear-weapon program. Saudi Arabia believes that as the deal rewards Iran financially, the deal would make the Iranian regime capable of financing and arming the militant groups like Hezbollah, which is Iran’s major terror machine in the region.

Thus, the post-sanction era seems prosperous for Iran and appears worrisome for its foes, especially Saudi Arabia.

For the last several years, Arabian Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, have been concerned over Iran’s likelihood of acquiring a nuclear weapon. The inking of the Iran nuclear deal has only helped to increase such fears, and the Arabian Gulf states are now rushing to boost their defense capabilities further as a hedge against Iran.

Because of the growing Iranian influence in the region and in anticipation of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia has become more cautious in its defense mechanism. In this prevailing environment, there is every reason to believe that Saudi Arabia may, perhaps secretly, make its move towards developing own nuclear weapon capabilities.

Perhaps, it is the beginning of another nuke race.


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