By Hossein Aryan, RFE/RL
Police forces protect Saudi Embassy in Tehran in March as protesters demonstrate, following Saudi assistance to a crackdown on Shi'ite protesters in Bahrain. Could sectarian tensions be raised as part of a Saudi-Iran proxy clash?
Iran's alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States -- on U.S. soil -- brought swift vows of revenge from Riyadh.
In the days after the alleged plot was revealed by U.S. authorities, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal accused Tehran of "murder and mayhem" and said his country would deliver a "measured response" to the plot.
"We hold them [Iran] accountable for any action they take against us," he said during a trip to Vienna. "And this is not the first time Iran has been suspected of similar acts."
Asked about the kingdom's likely actions against Iran, he replied, "We have to wait and see."
So what might Saudi Arabia do -- especially given the continued rippling effects of the Arab Spring across the Middle East?
Saudi Arabia could opt for a more traditional method of retaliation by backing ethnic-minority dissidents and oppressed Sunnis in Iran in an effort to undermine the domestic security of the country and exert pressure on the clerical regime. It could also lend support to militant Sunnis in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria with the hope of weakening Shi'ite-led Iran's influence in the region.
While plausible, engaging in a proxy war with Iran could have major implications. Iran could respond by inciting and launching covert operations in the oil-rich and strategically important Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, where most of the country's Shi'a live.
Saudi Arabia is already concerned about protests in Bahrain, where Shi'a are seeking greater rights from the Sunni monarchy. Protests earlier this month in Qatif in Eastern Province calling for the release of prisoners being held without trial has unnerved Riyadh. Saudi officials have said the protests were provoked by an unnamed foreign power, which is usually code for "Iran."
Saudi Arabia is also concerned about the Arab Spring. Riyadh has taken measures to immunize itself from the wave of political change that has toppled three dictators, including one to which it is still giving safe haven: Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Popular uprising have brought about unprecedented changes in power structures and reshaped the foreign policies of whole countries. Riyadh is all too aware of its own vulnerabilities.
Oil As A Weapon
Some four months ago, according to "Newsweek," Prince Turki al-Faisal, who was previously the head of Saudi Arabia's intelligence agency and ambassador to the United States, told a group of NATO officers at a military base in Britain that in response to Iran's negative influence in the region, his country could squeeze Iran's economy, which is overwhelmingly dependent on oil revenue. Presumably, this meant that Saudi Arabia would saturate the oil market with cheap oil and deprive the clerical regime of vital oil revenue used for maintaining security at home.
This plan, according to Prince Turki, has been taken seriously in the royal circle. However, embarking on such a plan means that Saudi Arabia would have to increase its current production level of some 9.5 million barrels per day by 3 million, which, according to Saudi officials, could take up to two months.
Apart from doubts about Saudi Arabia's ability to sustain such a high of level of production for enough time to have an impact on Iran, other oil-producing countries would suffer from the saturation of the market by Saudi oil. It's also doubtful that the current depressed market would be receptive to such a move.
Depriving Iran of its oil revenue would be tantamount to declaring war on the country, and the Islamic republic would most probably try to close the Strait of Hormuz to sever the flow of oil from Arab countries to the world market. Such action on the part of Iran would undoubtedly invite military intervention by the United States and other Western countries -- and as a result, the conflict would become internationalized and reminiscent of the "tanker war" during the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq.
Lobbying For Military Action
The reality is that Saudi Arabia, on its own, does not have the ability to bring Iran to its knees. Though it talks tough, Riyadh relies on U.S. muscle -- its main guarantor of security -- to put Iran in its place. Reportedly, Saudi leaders in the past have secretly urged Washington to attack Iran. According to WikiLeaks, one staunch advocate of such a move was the current Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubier, the target of the alleged assassination plot by Iran.
Now that the tension between Tehran and Riyadh has entered a dangerous phase, the Saudis are likely urging Washington to teach the clerical regime a lesson.
The Diplomacy Channel
On bilateral and regional levels, Saudi Arabia could reduce its diplomatic presence in Tehran and as a major player in the Gulf Cooperation Council, it could also encourage the other members to follow suit. It could also pursue the same policy via the Arab League. But these measures would have no tangible effects on isolating Iran politically or changing its behavior. Oman and Qatar have good relations with Iran and Dubai is a major trading partner of the Islamic republic.
Nevertheless, on an international level, Saudi Arabia could make a discernible difference by helping internationalize the sanctions against Iran.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia has already filed a complaint to the United Nations about Iran's involvement in the alleged plot and, according to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the case has been passed to the Security Council.
If true, it could be very difficult for China and Russia to drag their feet over further UN sanctions against Iran, which the United States is aggressively pursuing. This week, Treasury Department officials are in Europe to discuss joint sanctions against Iran's Central Bank.
Copyright (c) 2011 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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