February 9, 2007 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 324

The Middle East on a Collision Course (4): Saudi/Sunni-Iranian/Shi'ite Conflict – Diplomacy and Proxy Wars

February 9, 2007 | By Yigal Carmon, H. Varulkar, Yossi Mansharof, and D. Lav*
Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 324

Mapping the Middle East Crisis

The Middle East is currently in the throes of a comprehensive crisis that manifests itself in three main modes of conflict - political-military, economic, and religious - and in three main arenas - Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran. Since the election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his intransigent religious-ideological line, all of these conflicts have intensified and have to a great degree merged into a single, comprehensive regional crisis. The various arenas of conflict have become so interdependent as to virtually exclude a local solution for any one of them, and any solution has to necessarily pass through the filter of the Saudi-Iranian conflict.

Iran's contribution to the intensification of the conflict is expressed in the following areas:

1. The new provocative and defiant approach to the Iranian nuclear program;

2. Increased Iranian political and military involvement in Iraq;

3. Heightened direct Iranian involvement in Lebanon, including the supplying of military aid in the course of the Israel-Hizbullah war, in an attempt to attain de facto control over the Lebanese government;

4. Tightening relations with Syria, to the extent that the two countries signed a joint defense accord one month prior to the war;

5. Heightened support for Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad;

6. The promotion of a messianic ideology which, together with the other elements of Iranian policy, has deepened the Sunni-Shi'ite divide, and in particular has led to a comprehensive diplomatic conflict with Saudi Arabia.

All of these policies have struck at the U.S., Europe, and the pro-West camp in the Arab world (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the March 14 Forces in Lebanon, and the forces loyal to Palestinian Auhority President Mahmoud Abbas in the PA).

This regional configuration has led the U.S., Europe, Saudi Arabia, the March 14 Forces, Abbas, Egypt, and Jordan to react so as to face the Iranian threat. The U.S. has of course taken the lead through: its sponsorship of UNSC Resolution 1737, which imposed sanctions on Iran (the broadening of these sanctions will be further discussed at the Security Council on February 13, 2007); the concentration of significant military forces in the Persian Gulf; the new American offensive in Iraq against Iranian operatives and Iranian-allied forces; [1] staunch support for the March 14 Forces in Lebanon; and support for the establishment of an international tribunal which is liable to implicate Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri.

Saudi Arabia's efforts to fend off Iran are expressed in the following policies:

1. Striking at the Iranian economy through increased oil production and sales, which cuts Iran's export revenues through lowering oil prices;

2. Support for the March 14 Forces in Lebanon;

3. Support for Abu Mazen;

4. Leadership of the Sunni camp (represented primarily by Egypt and Jordan), [2] in an effort to counter Iran on the religious-ideological level.

As a counter to U.S. support for its regional allies, Russia has shown increasing support for Iran. This support is expressed both at the military level, by supplying Iran with advanced defensive weaponry, and at the diplomatic level, through across-the-board opposition to U.S. policy in the region. It should be noted that Russia, whose economy relies heavily on oil exports, has also suffered from Saudi Arabia's lowering of oil prices.

While Russia is interested in destabilizing the region so as to undermine the U.S.'s allies, it is worried at the implications of a full-scale conflagration, and thus is urging Iran to accept a compromise on the nuclear issue. During a recent visit to Tehran, Russia's top security official Igor Ivanov expressed support for IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei's proposal for a simultaneous freeze on uranium enrichment and U.N. sanctions - a proposal that the U.S. rejected. According to the London daily Al-Hayat, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has expressed Iran's desire for a comprehensive security and diplomatic treaty with Russia. [3]

President Putin is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia on February 11, 2007, and, according to his advisor Aslanbek Aslakhanov, he will bring with him "proposals and initiatives." This visit will likely be an attempt to influence the ongoing Saudi-Iranian efforts to arrive at a comprehensive regional settlement. [4]

Saudi and American Pressures Lead to Rift in the Ranks of the Iranian Leadership

At the same time that the Iran of Ahmadinejad has been dueling with Saudi Arabia, the Iran of Khamenei has been dancing a tense tango with it. Before describing the course of these diplomatic negotiations, it is necessary to review domestic developments in Iran in the wake of UNSC Resolution 1737.

UNSC Resolution 1737, which imposed sanctions on Iran, led to a semi-open rift in the ranks of the Iranian leadership. While all parties continue to support the nuclear program, for the first time Iranian conservatives have begun to criticize Ahmadinejad for his brash pronouncements and ostentatious media presence, which eased the way for the U.N. to adopt the sanctions resolution. [5] In addition, Saudi Arabia's lowering of oil prices, which has dealt serious damage to Iran's economy, and its taking the lead role of a more and more united Sunni camp, has led to a change in the approach taken by official Iran under the direction of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The beefing up of the American military presence in the Persian Gulf likely also contributed to this rift.

In essence, the conservative camp has split into two factions: one under the leadership of Khamenei, which seeks to rein in Ahmadinejad and to arrive at a regional settlement in order to avert the possibility of a total confrontation; and another faction under the leadership of Ahmadinejad and supported by elements in the Revolutionary Guards and the radical religious supporters of Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-e Yazdi. This latter camp scoffs at the warnings that America might take action against Iran, downplays the significance of the sanctions, and supports going ahead full speed with the nuclear program, even at the cost of military conflict.

An unnamed former senior official in the Iranian Foreign Ministry said in an interview with a reformist website on February 5, 2007: "…What we are seeing now is that Khamenei has distanced himself to a certain extent from the line taken by the Ahmadinejad government, and he is leaning towards Rafsanjani and the moderate Right. Khamenei does not really agree with Ahmadinejad's radical language of threats, and this is the reason that he views favorably the return of [Expediency Council Secretary] Mohsen Rezai to the Revolutionary Guards, so that Rezai and his team will oversee the Revolutionary Guards forces, whose current leaders agree with Ahmadinejad. There are even those who are saying that from now on nuclear policy will be in the hands of the Foreign Relations Steering Council, which is manned by Kharrazi, Velayati, and the moderate forces in the regime, so that Rafsanjani and Khatami will have a greater role in balancing the situation." [6]

On February 5, 2007, Ahmadinejad spoke in the Iranian Majlis and faced criticism from the conservative majority. The criticism focused mainly on the deteriorating economic situation - which, as previously mentioned, is an issue being used by Saudi Arabia to harm Iran. This is a sore point for Ahmadinejad, who was elected on populist promises to improve ordinary Iranian's economic situation. In response to the criticism, Ahmadinejad explained that "the enemies" were liable to try to lower oil prices in order to hurt Iran, and said that the domestic criticism he was facing was "part of a struggle over rule in Tehran." [7]

The division in the ranks of the Iranian leadership has led to a split foreign policy. The strategy of Ahmadinejad's conservative critics is, on the one hand, to force him to tone down his radical statements - and there are signs that they are succeeding in this - and on the other hand to bypass him and reach a comprehensive regional settlement with the Saudis. Thus, while Ahmadinejad reviled the Saudi "enemy" from a podium in the Majlis, Khamenei conducted his own independent foreign policy by sending his special envoy Ali Larijani to continue his attempts to reach a diplomatic settlement with this enemy. Iranian Foreign Minister Menouchehr Mottaki is not involved in these contacts; he was sent to Morocco.

Continued Saudi-Iranian Diplomacy: Attempts to Agree on a Balance of Power in the Middle East

On February 6, 2007, the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar continued its reports on the Saudi-Iranian negotiations. [8] The negotiations, at a number of locales, were between Saudi National Security Council Chairman Bandar bin Sultan and Iranian Supreme National Council Secretary Ali Larijani (and their aides). Citing a "well-informed ministerial source," the daily, which is close to Hizbullah, gave a summary of the negotiations to date. It should be noted that while previous reports on these talks focused on the situation in Lebanon, the February 6 issue of Al-Akhbar report described a comprehensive Saudi-Iranian dialogue, including such subjects as Iraq and Syria.

The Saudi position consisted of three main points: 1) Saudi Arabia is determined to see the international tribunal on the Al-Hariri assassination established and stability return to Lebanon; likewise it is determined to prevent Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian fighting in Lebanon (Iran was reported to have concurred on this last point). 2) Saudi Arabia is not opposed to Iran playing a major role in the region - and especially in Iraq. [9] It holds that Iran can have the status of other important Muslim countries, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. However, Saudi Arabia made this agreement conditional upon receiving serious signs that Iran is willing to cooperate in maintaining stability in the region, and first and foremost in Lebanon. 3) For Saudi Arabia, negotiations with Iran are of primary importance, in that they serve as an alternative to the failed negotiations with Syria. Saudi Arabia is not interested in seeing Syria play any substantive role in the regional dynamic. The message that was reportedly delivered to Iran was: if you really want to be a major country in the region, apply pressure on Syria to stop meddling in Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia requested clarifications on Iran's position. These clarifications were not forthcoming. According to Al-Akhbar, the reason for Iran's silence was the fact that Syria did not want the Iranians to reply.

Larijani reported to Bandar bin Sultan on the Syrian position. Bin Sultan felt that Syria wanted to foil the previous agreement because it was left out of the negotiations [in addition to material disagreements].

A Hizbullah delegation visited Syria following the last round of clashes in Lebanon (January 23 and 25) and expressed their concern over the escalation in sectarian violence. Their Syrian interlocutors dismissed these concerns, and said that the opposition needs to stand firm, no matter what the cost, until late March, at which point four critical dates will have passed: 1) The UNSC discussion on sanctions on Iran (February 13, 2007); 2) an additional report from the UN committee investigating the Al-Hariri assassination, expected to be published in March; 3) the U.N. secretary-general's report on implementation of U.N. Resolution 1701; 4) the Arab League Summit in Saudi Arabia, which is scheduled to convene on March 28, 2007.

Al-Akhbar cited reports from recent days that Syria has resolved to continue its diplomatic campaign against the proposed international tribunal on the Al-Hariri assassination, both in Lebanon and in the international arena. For Syria, a "19:11" solution in Lebanon, meaning that the current government will have 19 ministers and the opposition will have 11, will guarantee that the tribunal will not be established.

Al-Akhbar 's report ended on a pessimistic note. It cited its ministerial source as saying that both sides in Lebanon understand that no true rapprochement is in sight, and thus that a conflagration is inevitable. [10]

Events in the Coming Week

Bandar bin Sultan has in recent days been in the U.S. and in France conducting secret talks, about which no details are known. Iranian Foreign Relations Steering Council member Ali Akbar Velayati, who is Khamenei's personal advisor on international affairs, came to Moscow on February 7, and is to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Russia's top security official Igor Ivanov, and with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Larijani will be in Munich February 9-11 for the annual Munich Conference on Security, and is to meet with Western leaders. It has been reported that if progress is made in the negotiations on the Lebanon issue, Arab League Secretary 'Amr Moussa will return to Lebanon.

In parallel, and after a temporary lull, the Ahmadinejad camp in Iran has renewed its language of threats. [11] On February 11, 2007, at the conclusion of the 10-day Fajr holiday, which commemorates the Islamic Revolution in Iran, President Ahmadinejad is scheduled to give a speech that "will gladden the hearts of the Muslims." He is expected to announce a further advance in the nuclear program. Two days later, on February 13, the U.N. Security Council will convene to discuss further sanctions on Iran. In the meantime, the Saudi-Iranian negotiations may be the last dam holding back a flood of violence in the Middle East.

* Y. Mansharof is a research fellow at MEMRI, H. Varulkar is a research fellow at MEMRI, D. Lav is a Research Fellow at MEMRI, and Y. Carmon is the President of MEMRI.

[1] According to a number of Iranian opposition websites, one of the five Iranians captured at the Iranian representation office in Erbil on January 11, 2007, was chief theoretician of the Revolutionary Guards Hassan Abbasi, who heads the Doctrinal Center for National Security. In addition, the other four were reported to be members of the elite Quds force of the Revolutionary Guards, which is responsible for exporting the revolution and training and arming foreign insurgents.

For more on Abbasi, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1126, "We Will Endanger U.S. Security and Economic Interests Worldwide…" March 28, 2006, Abassi: ‘We Will Endanger U.S. Security and Economic Interests Worldwide; All These Manifestations [of Western Lifestyle]... [Reflect] the Success of the West; We Need a Cultural Revolution Among the People’ ; MEMRI TV Clip No. 251, "Islam Has Nothing in Common with Democracy," May 23, 2004, ; and Clip No. 252, "We Plan to Target U.S. Nuclear Warheads on U.S. Soil…" May 23, 2004,

[2] Prior to the 2005 elections in Iraq, King Abdullah of Jordan warned of a "Shi'ite crescent" that would destabilize the Middle East; Al-Sabah (Baghdad), March 23, 2005. On April 8, 2006, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told Al-Arabiya TV that the loyalty of Arab Shi'ites was given to Iran, and not to their own countries:

[3] Al-Hayat (London), January 30, 2007.

[4] Al-Hayat (London), January 30, 2007.

[5] For a comprehensive review of this Iranian domestic criticism, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 317, "Iranian Domestic Criticism of Iran's Nuclear Strategy," January 24, 2007, Iranian Domestic Criticism of Iran's Nuclear Strategy.

[6] Rooz (Iran), February 5, 2007,

[7] Al-Hayat (London), February 6, 2007.

[8] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 323, "The Middle East on a Collision Course (3): The Lebanese-Syrian Front," February 7, 2007, The Middle East on a Collision Course (3): The Lebanese-Syrian Front.

[9] This is a significant concession in the Saudi position. In an interview with the French daily Le Figaro, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal expressed Saudi Arabia's opposition to Iranian "interference" in Arab affairs. Le Figaro (France), January 24, 2007.

[10] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 6, 2007.

[11] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1457 "The Middle East on a Collision Course (5): Iran Steps Up Threats in Light of Possible U.S. Attack," February 9, 2007, {{nodeurl-}} .

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