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Iran’s Influence Threatens Sunnis

While Washington inches toward the right combination of carrot and stick to curb Iran, a shaken Sunni Arab world – led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt – is scrambling to offset the growing power of their Shiite rivals.

Things look bad from the Sunni perspective. Shi’ite Iran is close to acquiring a nuclear weapon while also threatening to wrest control of fragile Iraq and Lebanon through militias that foment sectarian violence. Further, Syria (a former Sunni ally) has joined the Iranian axis. Iran’s defense minister considers “Syrian defense forces as our own,” while Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei confirms that Iran-Syria ties are “strategic.”

As the religious leaders of the Sunni world, the Saudis have the most to lose by Iran’s power grab. The largest stakes are in neighboring Iraq, which is in danger of becoming an Iranian satellite, thanks to a Shi’ite majority heavily influenced by Iran. Knowing the stakes, the Saudis are fighting back in brutal fashion; Saudi-trained or influenced Wahhabis are a core component of the Sunni insurgency that targets Shi’ite civilians in bloody attacks.

Some energy analysts also speculate that Saudi Arabia may be manipulating the world oil supply to limit Iranian profits. The financial magazine Kiplinger’s cites “conjecture that Saudi Arabia wants to keep the price of oil at $50 to $55 a barrel to hobble regional rival Iran by cutting its petro profits.” While it is difficult to imagine that the House of Saud would adopt economic policies that would hamstring its own economy, the possibility of such a measure underscores the kingdom’s desperation.

The Saudis are also worried about Iran’s influence in Lebanon. When Hezbollah, backed by Iran, launched war against Israel in summer 2006, the Saudis surprised Western observers by condemning Hezbollah’s provocations as “rash adventures carried out by elements inside [Lebanon] and those behind them.” The Saudis, who are no friends of Israel, expressed their anger that war was launched “without consultation or coordination with Arab countries,” exhorting Hezbollah to end “the crisis they have created.”

In attempt to counter Tehran, Saudi Arabia continues to back Lebanese Sunni Prime Minister Fouad Sinoura and maintains ties with other Sunni politicians. Some analysts also believe the Saudis may be sponsoring increased extremist activity in Lebanon as a means to counter Hizbullah.

Meanwhile, the Saudis last month held talks with Iran on ways to maintain calm in Lebanon, a state that both countries consider vital to their regional interests. The Saudis also brokered a February ceasefire in Mecca between the Iran-backed Hamas fighters in the Palestinian territories, and their Fatah faction rivals. Although both Hamas and Fatah are Sunni, analysts fear that Iran is building “Hamasistan” in the Gaza Strip, where Iranian-sponsored radicalism would rule the streets in the small territory home to 1.4 million Palestinians.

Egypt, the Saudis’ top rival for Sunni Arab leadership, has also grown alarmed over Iran’s influence in Palestinian affairs, which is traditionally Cairo’s turf. Responding to reports of Hamas operatives training in military camps run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Egypt is working to bolster the Fatah faction. Cairo is training at least one battalion of 800 men to be stationed in the Gaza Strip. These forces will likely engage hostile Hamas fighters in the ongoing internecine violence in Gaza.

More broadly, the prospect of an ascendant Iran has shaken Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to the extent that Mubarak’s foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, is now working full-time on ways to undercut Tehran. However, since Saudi Arabia assumed leadership in mediating between Palestinian factions, Mubarak has been marginalized. He is now looking for new ways to project Egyptian strength.

Of course, Washington supports many of the current Egyptian and Saudi Arabian efforts to challenge Iran. However, policymakers are also aware that neither Saudi Arabia, the bedrock of radical Wahhabi Islam, nor Egypt, an ossified autocracy, are particularly interested in the long-term strategic goals of the United States in the Middle East. The Bush administration should remind these Arab states that Sunni radicalism and the democracy deficit still rank among America’s chief concerns in the region. These issues must be approached with equal vigor once the Iranian threat has been neutralized.

Jonathan Schanzer, a former Treasury intelligence analyst, is Director of Policy for the Jewish Policy Center. He is the author of Al-Qaeda’s Armies: Middle East Affiliate Groups and the Next Generation of Terror.