"Hard-Liners" and "Pragmatists" in Saudi Arabia Disagree About Iran
    By Georges Malbrunot
    Le Figaro


    By receiving President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Saturday, King Abdullah
displayed his willingness to have a dialogue with Iran, but all around him,
others are preaching a "more aggressive" approach. A sign of divisions? Or
of a desire to keep all cards in hand?

    Guardian of Islam's holy sites and the main oil producer in the world,
Saudi Arabia counts on using its power to bring Iran towards moderation with
respect to the disagreements that oppose the two countries: nuclear power
and the export of Shiism into the Arab world, particularly in Lebanon.
Taking over from the aging Egyptian power, Saudi diplomacy is scoring
points, as the recent inter-Palestinian summit in Mecca that will curb the
drift toward civil war demonstrates. But with respect to the issues that
threaten Middle East stability, the Saudi leadership does not always display
a clear position.

    On Iraq, King Abdullah still rejects involving his country further. But
all around him, there are princes pushing to adopt "a more aggressive
posture." All share more or less the same observation: Iran's influence will
continue, while over time the American presence will diminish. And the
insurrection is not going to yield. Consequently, Riyadh worries about its
neighbor blowing up. But how to counter Tehran? By dialogue, maintains the
monarch, who has sent his nephew Bandar to Tehran several times over the
last few months to talk with National Security Adviser Ali Larijani before
he received Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Riyadh Saturday. "We know about your
clandestine activities in Iraq; it's time to put an end to them," the Saudis
repeat to Iran, "otherwise, we'll react." How? By helping Sunni groups
confront the "Shiite death squads" that are fanning sectarian hatred. For
having launched this idea last November in the Washington Post, the young
and brilliant researcher, Nawaf Obaid, was dismissed from his post as
adviser to the Saudi Embassy in Washington. At the time, while the debate in
the United States about whether or not to maintain troops in Iraq was
intense, this trial balloon aimed to tell George Bush: "Don't leave Iraq;
we'll suffer the consequences."

    It is likely that Saudis today are privately financing armed Iraqi
groups, but as long as the Americans are in Baghdad, the government cannot
do so. On the other hand, if the country blows apart, everything is
possible. And since that possibility is not so far distant, some officials
push the king to put together a "worst case scenario": one Shiite region in
the south goes for autonomy in Iran's lap; al-Qaeda takes over the Sunnis,
and the civil war becomes an all-out conflagration. In that case, "the Saudi
government would have a hard time convincing the Sunni tribes in the North -
which stretch into Iraq - to not go to the armed defense of their cousins on
the other side of the border," acknowledges a European diplomat in Arabia,
who adds: "The greatest danger to the Saudis is to see certain Iraqi Sunni
tribes at their borders rally to the cause of al-Qaeda," which has been
responsible for numerous attacks in the kingdom.

    Hence the urgency to help these tribes avoid succumbing to the terrorist
sirens, plead those partisans of an "aggressive" approach in Iraq. Others,
on the contrary, promote appeasing gestures to induce the Iranian government
and its Iranian allies to fight against the Shiite militias: to invite Grand
Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the top Iraqi dignitary, to visit the holy places of
Mecca and Medina, or to annul part of the Iraqi debt. But Riyadh will not
agree to these messages as long as Iran has not proven its good faith by
moderating in Iraq, in Lebanon, or on the nuclear issue. "What good is it to
negotiate with Ahmadinejad, when the real power in Tehran is in the hands of
the Guide and the pasdarans," maintain the partisans of a hard-line approach
to their Persian neighbors.

    In Riyadh, the emergence of a "Shiite crescent" raises the fear of a
change in the balance of power in the Arab world. "That Iran should control
Lebanon through Hezbollah is a red line that Arabia cannot accept," thunders
a Saudi official. But on this, as on the nuclear issue, opinions differ
about the best way to respond to Tehran.

    King Abdullah wants dialogue with Iran, while Prince Bandar, to whom a
part of the Iranian issue has been entrusted, follows a more radical line,
close to that of Dick Cheney and the American Neoconservatives, according to
his detractors in Riyadh. Abdullah does not want to give the impression that
a coalition of Arab countries is on the point of supporting an American
military attack against Iran. Hence, certain tensions in relations with
Washington, another apple of discord among Saudi leaders.
All the more so
as, in response to Tehran, Riyadh is developing its military cooperation
with its strategic ally in Asia, Pakistan, accused by George Bush of not
doing enough against al-Qaeda. According to some observers, "the Saudi
atomic bomb is already ready on a shelf in Pakistan." If that were the case,
Riyadh would still lack ballistic missiles, its fuel-oil powered CSS-2
appearing obsolete fifteen years after their acquisition from the Chinese.

    Saudi Arabia wants a balance of power in the Middle East. Against
Tehran, its assets are numerous: a GNP 60% higher than Iran's, its position
as the beacon of a Sunni world that is the broad majority in Islam. The next
government reshuffling, planned for the end of March, between the
hard-liners and the pragmatists will give an indication of the balance of
power at the kingdom's summit.