Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal says U.S. policy in Iraq is exacerbating sectarian divisions to the point of effectively handing the country to Iran. With a Shiite-led government poised to take control in Baghdad and the United States eager to relieve U.S. forces in the region, the House of Saud is growing increasingly anxious at the thought of Persian influence seeping across Iran's borders at the expense of Iraq's Sunni community. Riyadh therefore is signaling Washington that U.S.-Iranian cooperation over Iraq could spell trouble for U.S. relations with the Saudi kingdom.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Sept. 21 that Washington is essentially handing Iraq to Iran on a silver platter. He accused the United States of widening the gap between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite communities, claiming that such a policy would only lead to civil war in Iraq and incite further Iranian interference. Prince Saud reminded the United States that it fought a war alongside Saudi Arabia "to keep Iran out of Iraq after Iraq was driven out of Kuwait." He said "now we are handing the whole country over to Iran without reason." Prince Saud's warning of civil war erupting in Iraq is a bit exaggerated. Despite periodic intra-Shiite clashes and Iraq's al Qaeda chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's repeated attempts to incite sectarian violence, Iraq's Shiite community has largely restrained itself from falling into a violent fracas with Sunni insurgents. The House of Saud, however, is justifiably concerned about Iran's rising influence in Baghdad as a result of U.S. support — a concern we have been anticipating for quite sometime now. Washington, of course, is aware of the long-term problems of relying totally on Iraqi Shiites and giving Iran a foothold in the country — and has for more than a year taken the path of multiple complex negotiations involving the Kurds and Sunnis. This has allowed it to curtail the extent to which the Persians and their Arab co-sectarians can dominate Iraq. The United States is intent on enforcing a significant troop reduction in Iraq in time for the U.S. mid-term elections in November 2006. To achieve that goal, the Bush administration's main focus is centered on stabilizing Iraq by working with the Shiite-led government to pass the Oct. 15 referendum on the constitution — despite Sunni objections — and move the political process forward. Iran is a key ingredient in Washington's plan for Iraq. Beneath the atmospherics over Iran's nuclear controversial nuclear program, the United States and Iran are engaged in back-channel negotiations to ensure their respective expectations for Iraq are met. The domestic turmoil over Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, along with Washington's utterly failed attempt to push an International Atomic Energy Agency referral to the U.N. Security Council over Iran's nuclear program, revealed weaknesses in the Bush administration to Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab world. With attention focused on claiming some semblance of success in Iraq, the United States will be more inclined to soften its public stance against Tehran. U.S.-Iranian backdoor cooperation is becoming all too apparent for the Saudis to handle. Iraq has provided an ideal battleground for the historical Sunni-Shiite rivalry to play out between Riyadh and Tehran. In anticipation of rising Iranian-backed Shiite influence in Baghdad, the Saudis legitimately fear the potential of Shiite uprisings in Saudi Arabia's eastern province and have a pressing need to prevent the jihadist insurgency in Iraq from shifting its focus to the House of Saud — a prime al Qaeda target. Also, the Saudis historically have been seen by their citizens as the defenders of the Sunni faith, so pressure has come from the Wahhabi religious establishment — whose support the House of Saud needs in its continuing struggle to neutralize the jihadists — which could never envision the rise of a Shiite sect. The Saudis also have allowed the idea to flourish that the true jihad is taking place in Iraq — as opposed to within the kingdom — which helps them to contain the jihadists at home to a certain degree. As for the Iraqi Sunnis, they remain divided despite the community-wide concern about their political marginalization in the ongoing process. This, along with their ideological differences with the Saudis, will prevent them from aligning with Riyadh. In fact, for both of these reasons the Saudis are worried that the Iraqi Sunnis might be unable to counterbalance the Shiite influence in their country — hence, Prince Saud's statements of Sept. 21. Washington likely will be unable to completely assuage Saudi fears that a Shiite-led, Iranian-backed government in Baghdad will pose a significant threat to Riyadh. Then again, Washington's attempts to balance Iranian and Saudi interests in Iraq — while simultaneously attempting to achieve its own — is bound to keep the scales tilted.