Iran's Influence Threatens Sunnis

By Jonathan Schanzer
The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin
March 22, 2007

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.

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