Reuters: Alarmed by what it sees as Iran’s growing control in Iraq, Saudi Arabia will watch anxiously as Iraqis vote on a new constitution that Riyadh fears will shift the regional balance of power towards Tehran. Reuters
By Dominic Evans
RIYADH – Alarmed by what it sees as Iran’s growing control in Iraq, Saudi Arabia will watch anxiously as Iraqis vote on a new constitution that Riyadh fears will shift the regional balance of power towards Tehran.
For Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim monarchy — which rules over a significant Shi’ite community — the sight of Iraq’s majority Shi’ites gradually asserting themselves in the last two years after decades of Sunni rule has been disturbing enough.
But the world’s biggest oil exporter believes Iran is exploiting the Shi’ite resurgence in Iraq and the disintegration of central power since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein to assert its own control in the south of the country.
It fears a Yes vote in Saturday’s vote on the constitution will consolidate sectarian splits — and Iranian influence.
“The constitution will give Iranians or pro-Iranian Iraqis an open hand in seven provinces in the south, to bring them together into an autonomy which will create a Shi’ite republic,” said one Saudi official.
“There are Iraqis who see the Iranians as their leaders”.
Saudi frustration erupted last month when Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, in New York, said the United States was “handing over the whole country to Iran without reason”.
His comments triggered an outburst from Iraq’s Interior Minister Bayan Jabor, a member of the Shi’ite Islamist SCIRI party which was established in Iran, who said he would not take lectures from a “bedouin riding a camel”.
Last week a visit to Saudi Arabia by Iran’s foreign minister was postponed. Saudi officials blamed a clash of schedules but conceded they saw little prospect of a fruitful meeting.
“What Saudi Arabia does not want to hear is an Iranian denial (of interference),” the Saudi official said. “Maybe we were not convinced the Iranians had something presentable”.
Saudi Arabia’s anxiety is heightened by its lack of political leverage in Iraq, despite a shared border and tribal links with Sunni communities in the centre of the country.
One Riyadh-based diplomat said Saudi Arabia was trying to cultivate and promote what he called “mainstream” Sunni figures.
But Sunni provinces in the centre of Iraq are also at the centre of a two-year insurgency which has hit U.S. troops, the fledgling Iraqi security services and other targets. Sunnis are divided on whether they should try to vote down the constitution or cast doubt on its legitimacy by boycotting the vote.
“The Saudis at some point will want to intervene, but they don’t have the means. The will is there but the question is the means,” said Dubai-based analyst Mustafa Alani.
The kingdom hosted a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Jeddah and proposed a reconciliation conference to bring Iraqi factions together.
“We’re throwing ideas out there … But the Americans just ask Saudi Arabia to pressure Iraq’s Sunnis to support whatever plan the Americans have on the ground,” said the Saudi official.
Diplomats say Saudi Arabia is looking for ways of countering Iran’s growing authority.
“I don’t think they are under any illusions about where the weight of politics lies in Iraq after the fall of Saddam,” one diplomat said. “But maybe you will see signs of Saudi Arabia trying to realign or shape the debate towards the more secular, nationalist or centrist Shi’ite elements.”
Iraq’s former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and his successor Ibrahim Jaafari, both Shi’ites, are figures who some analysts say could limit Iranian influence — particularly the velayet-e faqih doctrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini which holds that an eminent Shi’ite cleric can hold absolute legal authority.
“Jaafari is in between. He was close to Iran but couldn’t swallow everything coming from Tehran,” the Saudi official said. “If he sees support from other countries or other forces, he might break away and join independent forces like Iyad.”