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The Truth Behind Saudi Arabia's Fear of a Nuclear Iran

By Hassan Ahmadian, Expert of the Center for Strategic Research, Tehran
Source: Iranian Diplomacy (IRD); translated By: Iran Review

In a recent interview with the Israeli daily, Haaretz, Dennis Ross, a senior advisor to the United States President Barack Obama in Middle East affairs, said that in a visit to Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, in early 2009, he had been told by the Saudi King Abdullah that if Iran becomes a nuclear state, Saudi Arabia will rapidly develop its own nuclear bomb. More reports had been also published as earlier as February 2007, following King Abdullah’s meeting with the then Russian President Vladimir Putin which brought similar quotes from the Saudi king. Although those reports were never officially confirmed, Ross’ remarks prove beyond any doubt that such allegations which are made by Saudi Arabia from time to time should be taken quite seriously. However, a logical question which may preoccupy a Middle East researcher’s mind here is: why Saudi Arabia is not as afraid of Israel’s nuclear arsenal as it is of a nuclear Iran? It is quite clear that Israel developed nuclear weapons when it was considered the archenemy of Arab countries in the Middle East. Three years later, in 1967, Israeli forces occupied vast pieces of land which belonged to their neighboring Arab countries, including two Saudi islands of Sanafir and Tiran. However, Saudi Arabia has never made any effort or even posed any threat about developing nuclear weapons and has never attempted to create nuclear balance with Israel. So, why Saudi Arabia is so fearful of a nuclear Iran? Can King Abdullah’s threat be taken as a serious omen of a looming nuclear race in the Middle East?

Saudi Arabia apparently looks upon Iran from the standpoint of regional rivalries and believes that nuclearization of Iran will be a dangerous turn of events for its regional calculations and relations. “Tension in return for pressure” is perhaps a good interpretation for Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran moves and policies. In other words, whenever Saudi Arabia comes under mounting domestic, regional and/or international pressures, it tries to escalate tension with the Islamic Republic of Iran in order to distract attention from those pressures. In this way, Riyadh also tries to come up with a framework within which it would be able to cooperate with the source of pressure (both internal and external) by claiming that it is facing an alleged foreign risk (from Iran). Another point is the fact that conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran can boost a sense of national identity in Saudi Arabia. This issue will be discussed in more detail below.

Saudi Arabia launched its wave of Iranophobia just at a time that following 9/11 terror attacks in the United States, it was under increasing pressure from the West and was doing its best to maintain relations and remain in alliance with the West. It was more so following the US occupation of Iraq in 2003. As the tension between Iran and the West built up, Riyadh also tried to escalate tension with Tehran. In fact, apart from traditional rivalry with Iran, Saudi Arabia has tried in this period to put more stress on the alleged threat of a nuclear Iran to regional and international peace and security and highlight that threat in the mind of Western states. In this way, Riyadh is trying to shift the West’s focus from fighting terrorism as well as role of Saudi Arabian terrorists in anti-American and anti-West activities both in the mass media and at official level among the states. As a result, Saudi Arabia has pursued a policy of confrontation with Iran in the aforesaid period at two bilateral and multilateral levels [through the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League, and the United Nations]. The assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who also held Saudi citizenship, was a turning point in the confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As a result of that assassination, pressures on Iran's close ally in the Levant, namely Syria, soared so high that Damascus was finally forced to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, after they had been there for three decades. Pressures were also mounting on Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah as a result of efforts made by Saudi Arabia and its regional allies. All those efforts represented Saudi Arabia’s threat-based approach to Iran. In fact, Riyadh was moving in line with Washington’s policy to “cut Iran's regional wings first.” That policy directly sought military engagement with Iran after its close regional allies were routed out.

As a result of that policy, Saudi Arabia kept complete lull throughout two regional wars which were launched by Israel respectively against Lebanon in 2006 and against Gaza in 2008-09, with the direct goal of weakening the anti-Israeli resistance front. In doing so, Saudi Arabia was actually fulfilling its mission for separating Syria from Iran. They also tried to encourage Syria distance from Iran by making efforts to exonerate Damascus of its charges in Hariri’s assassination case. That policy aimed to first point an incriminating finger at the Lebanese Hezbollah after exonerating Syria, in order to kick off the subsequent process of increasing differences between Tehran and Damascus. A joint visit to Lebanese capital, Beirut, by the Saudi King Abdullah and Syria’s President Bashar Assad was, in fact, the outset of that process. Of course, Syria’s diplomatic prowess caused the plan to fail because after reaping the fruit of the visit (as envisaged by Saudi Arabia and the West), Syria refrained from distancing its position from Iran and letting a rift to be created between two main pillars of the resistance front.

Although increasing tension with Iran using the nuclear case as pretext has been a focus of attention for Riyadh since many years ago, it has gained even more importance after the recent spate of democracy seeking uprisings in the region. The wave of popular uprisings in Arab countries has put tremendous pressure on Saudi Arabia, like other Arab states, and has increased people’s expectations both inside and around the kingdom. Therefore, Riyadh has felt an urging need to reduce the focus on regional popular uprisings both among regional nations and Western states. As a result, Saudi Arabia has been trying to increase tensions with Iran and this has coincided with escalating pressures from the West over Iran's nuclear energy program, which have played into the hands of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia used the alleged Iran threat in Bahrain - which was not substantiated even by the closest allies of Saudi Arabia in the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council - to suppress Bahraini people’s uprising by deploying the Peninsula Shield Force, which had been originally established to head off foreign threat against member countries. In the meantime, regional media affiliated to Saudi Arabia never ceased their hype about Iran threat and even carried reports about Iran's military moves to topple Bahrain’s Al Khalifa regime.

Apart from adopting a policy of escalating tension with Iran in order to foil or reduce domestic and foreign pressures, tension and confrontation with Iran is a matter of identity for Saudi Arabia. This means Riyadh has been regularly facing fundamental problems in its nation-building drive because sub-national (tribal) and transnational (Islamic and Arab) identities have been constantly more powerful in this country than a national identity. Therefore, Riyadh is trying to take advantage of a foreign enemy in order to unify the nation and strengthen the country’s sense of national identity around the pivot of Al Saud family. Although some analysts maintain that the Islamic identity can work as a good foundation for legitimacy of the government in Riyadh, such a transnational legitimacy cannot be necessarily a useful means of consolidating domestic situation in the country. This consideration about the Islamic identity has been even more pronounced in the period of popular uprisings in the Arab world. The Saudi nation has been constantly divided into opponents and proponents of developments in the Arab world and an Islamic identity has not been a good foundation for strengthening national spirit of Saudi Arabia’s people. In the meantime, anti-Iranian and anti-Shia propaganda by Riyadh (in spite of the presence of a big Shia minority in the country) has proven capable of bolstering nationalistic feelings and the national spirit of the Saudi nation. Therefore, intensification of such conflicts and confrontation with Iran has been very important to Saudi Arabian government from this viewpoint. On the whole, allegations about Iran's threat against Bahrain or Iran's nuclear threat against the whole region are aimed to provide Saudi Arabia with a good framework to keep Saudi’s incomplete nation-building process going. In other words, nuclearization of Iran would mean more strength for an enemy around which Saudi Arabia’s new identity has taken shape. Therefore, the focus on Iran should increase as Saudi Arabia tries to proceed with its nation-building effort.

There are many reasons why Saudi Arabia is not afraid of Israel’s nuclear bomb as much as it is scared of the nuclear Iran and why, instead of raising tension with Iran, it does not take advantage of tension with Israel to boost the country’s sense of national identity. In short, Israel has never been considered a major rival in Saudi Arabia’s regional policies. Secondly, when it comes to ideology, the tension between Saudi Salafi tendencies and Shiism is much more fundamental and serious than the tension between Salafis and Jews (who are at least considered People of the Book by Salafis). Thirdly, Saudi Arabia’s early fears of a nuclear Israel have gradually given way to a kind of imposed coexistence between Israel and regional Arab states, including Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, after Egypt signed the peace accord with Israel, thus, pushing the issue of Palestine out of the focus, tensions related to the conflict between Arab identity and Israel were lowered to a minimum. At the same time, however, Iran was a better object of hate because of the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in the country followed by the eight-year war with Iraq. Last but not least, Saudi Arabia and Israel are both among allies of Washington and the West in this sensitive region while Iran is at loggerheads with the West and does not accept the West’s influence in the region. This enables the Saudis to put pressure on Israel through Western channels, but their channels for diplomatic pressure on Iran, if any, are very limited. As a result, tension is the best option for Riyadh when it wants to take domestic and regional advantage of its relationship with Iran. The only concern of Saudi Arabia is how to manage that tension in view of conditions of time and place.

Creation and intensification of tension with Iran is usually put on Saudi Arabia’s political agenda every time that Riyadh feels the burden of domestic or foreign pressures. By using tensions with Iran, Saudi Arabian officials want to reduce focus on many problems inside the kingdom, on the one hand, while undermining Iran's position in regional rivalries by increasing pressures on Tehran, on the other hand. As a result, following 9/11 terror attacks in the United States, when Saudi Arabia came under heavy pressures from Western countries followed by domestic pressures, Riyadh moved to increase tension with Tehran. The subsequent occupation of Iraq and gradual increase of Iran's political clout in its western neighbor was another factor which helped to further raise tension between Tehran and Riyadh. During political crises in Lebanon and Gaza as well as in the course of popular uprisings in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia continued its policy of increasing unilateral and multilateral tension with Iran in order to decrease the pressure it felt on its shoulders. At present, tension with Iran is pursued through Tehran’s nuclear energy program. This new ground for tension is not only a result of traditional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but is also crucial to help to strengthen a sense of national identity inside Saudi Arabia.

It follows from the above facts, that Saudi Arabia’s adversity to Iran's nuclear energy program is part and parcel of its identity-boosting conflict with Iran and Shiism in general. Attention to this point will make it easier to forecast future outlook of anti-Iranian actions of Saudi Arabia. Under new conditions in the Middle East, domestic and foreign pressures on conservative Arab monarchies which see themselves faced with popular uprisings are incessantly on the rise. Saudi Arabia is at loggerheads with democratic changes in the Middle East and, naturally, will be under more serious pressure. Internal and external pressures are sure to keep mounting on Saudi Arabia if the king dies and the conservative wing of the Saudi regime gains more power. If that happens, Riyadh will continue its past policy by using tension with Iran - in addition to other means - to overcome pressures and also to boost the sense of national identity in Saudi Arabia around the pivot of Al Saud family. Consequently, Saudi Arabia is actually using tension over Iran's nuclear program as a means of evading internal and external pressures and also to boost the country’s sense of national identity around the pivot of Al Saud family.

... Payvand News - 06/27/12 ... --

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