Saudi Ara­bia ex­pands its anti-Iran strat­egy be­yond the Mid­dle East


RIYADH (Reuters) – Un­der King Sal­man, Saudi Ara­bia is ex­pand­ing its con­fronta­tion with Iran well be­yond the Mid­dle East, no longer re­ly­ing heav­ily on Western al­lies to smother Tehran’s am­bi­tions out­side the Arab world.

Since Sal­man came to power early last year, and Tehran struck a nu­clear deal with world pow­ers, Riyadh has ad­justed its strat­egy for coun­ter­ing the ef­forts of its Shi’ite ri­val to build in­flu­ence in Africa, Asia and even Latin Amer­ica.

Most no­tably, the Sunni power has used Mus­lim net­works to push states into cut­ting off con­tacts with Iran, in­clud­ing by cre­at­ing an Is­lamic Coali­tion against ter­ror­ism with­out invit­ing Tehran to join.

“Iran is the one that iso­lated it­self by sup­port­ing ter­ror­ism,” For­eign Min­is­ter Adel al-Jubeir told a re­cent news con­fer­ence. “That is why the world re­acted to Iran, and par­tic­u­larly the Is­lamic world, and ba­si­cally said ‘enough is enough.’”

Tehran de­nies it spon­sors ter­ror­ism, and points to its record of fight­ing the Sunni ter­ror­ists of Is­lamic State through back­ing for Shi’ite mili­tias in Iraq and Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad in Syria.

Riyadh is alarmed by Tehran’s sup­port for the Shi’ite Hezbol­lah move­ment in Le­banon, and cut off military aid to the Beirut govern­ment af­ter it failed to con­demn at­tacks on Saudi diplo­matic mis­sions in Iran. Like­wise, Saudi forces are fight­ing a war against Ira­nian-al­lied Houthi rebels in Ye­men.

But all this is part of its long-stand­ing diplo­matic, eco­nomic and military ef­forts to con­tain what it sees as a per­ni­cious ex­pan­sion of Ira­nian ac­tiv­ity in Arab na­tions. Now it is at­tempt­ing to or­ches­trate sup­port else­where, in­clud­ing from coun­tries such as Pakistan and Malaysia through its cre­ation last Novem­ber of the coali­tion against ter­ror­ism.

“In many ways the di­men­sions of the com­pe­ti­tion be­tween Iran and Saudi Ara­bia are be­gin­ning to go be­yond the Mid­dle East. This is an in­ter­est­ing de­vel­op­ment that his­tor­i­cally hasn’t been the case,” said Mehran Kam­rava, a pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity-Qatar.

The strat­egy partly re­sponds to im­ple­men­ta­tion of the nu­clear deal in Jan­uary. Riyadh fears this will give Iran more scope to push its in­ter­ests in­ter­na­tion­ally by re­leas­ing it from many of the sanc­tions that have crip­pled its econ­omy.

With even the United States now say­ing Western banks can re­sume le­git­i­mate busi­ness with Tehran, the Saudis be­lieve their main Western ally is grad­u­ally dis­en­gag­ing from the re­gion.

“They un­der­stand the old in­ter­na­tional order is dead and they have to take re­spon­si­bil­ity,” said a se­nior diplo­mat in Riyadh.

But the strat­egy is also driven by King Sal­man’s be­lief that Ira­nian in­flu­ence has grown only be­cause no­body has stood up to it, said Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security ex­pert with close ties to the Saudi In­te­rior Min­istry.

The coali­tion against ter­ror­ism falls into this con­text. When chiefs of staff from 34 Mus­lim states met af­ter a joint military ex­er­cise in late March, a car­toon in the Lon­don-based pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, owned by the Saudi rul­ing fam­ily, showed a bomber drop­ping leaflets with a no-en­try sign onto Iran.

The coali­tion, which caused some con­fu­sion as to its scope and mem­ber­ship when Riyadh first an­nounced it, is now mov­ing for­ward and work to es­tab­lish a “co­or­di­na­tion cen­ter” may be for­mal­ized dur­ing Ra­madan which starts this week.

“The next step is the meet­ing of de­fense min­is­ters, per­haps dur­ing Ra­madan. At the same time we pre­pare a co­or­di­na­tion cen­ter in Riyadh,” said Saudi Brig.-Gen. Ahmed al-Asseri.

This cen­ter will have per­ma­nent staff mem­bers from each par­tic­i­pat­ing coun­try, Asseri said, and would be a place where states could either re­quest help in deal­ing with ter­ror­ism or of­fer military, security or other aid.

Although not ex­plic­itly aimed at coun­ter­ing Iran, the coali­tion in­cludes nei­ther Tehran nor its al­lied govern­ment in Iraq. The al­liance also aims to counter com­ment in some Western me­dia that while Iran and its Shi’ite al­lies are fight­ing Is­lamic State, Sunni Saudi Ara­bia sup­ports ji­hadism on some lev­els.

“This new coali­tion is ba­si­cally to get the world­wide Is­lamic sup­port for Saudi Ara­bia to lead the fight against ter­ror­ism and take the flag from Iran,” said Alani.

Whether the coali­tion mem­bers see it that way is an­other mat­ter.

Muham­mad Nafees Zakaria, spokesman for Pakistan’s For­eign Min­istry, praised Riyadh for set­ting up the coali­tion and said Is­lam­abad would be happy to share ex­per­tise.

But he also said the ar­range­ments would take time to de­velop and added that Pakistan sought “brother­hood” be­tween Is­lamic states and was there­fore con­cerned about the es­ca­la­tion in ten­sion be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Iran.

Be­yond the coali­tion ini­tia­tive, Riyadh is try­ing to win the sup­port of In­dia and en­cour­age it to iso­late Iran. So far it has achieved mixed re­sults. Af­ter Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi vis­ited both coun­tries last month, Saudi en­ergy sales to In­dia grew but New Delhi also agreed to build a port in Iran.

Riyadh’s host­ing of a sum­mit of South Amer­i­can and Arab League states last year was also partly aimed at push­ing back Iran, said a Saudi an­a­lyst who some­times car­ries out diplo­matic func­tions for the govern­ment.

Then-Ira­nian pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad vis­ited Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador in 2012 seek­ing diplo­matic sup­port from the left-wing states, with lit­tle ap­par­ent suc­cess.

Some African coun­tries have fol­lowed many Arab League states in re­cent months in cut­ting diplo­matic ties with Iran. This fol­lowed the storm­ing of Riyadh’s Tehran em­bassy in re­ac­tion to Saudi Ara­bia’s ex­e­cu­tion of a Shi’ite cleric in Jan­uary.

On Mon­day, Zam­bia’s pres­i­dent ap­peared in Riyadh on an of­fi­cial visit soon af­ter speak­ing out against Tehran.

Iran has de­voted money to win­ning friends across Africa, in­vest­ing in lo­cal in­dus­tries and pay­ing to spread its Shi’ite ver­sion of Is­lam in Mus­lim states. Play­ing on its anti-im­pe­ri­al­ist cre­den­tials, Tehran’s goal ap­peared to be win­ning wider sup­port at the United Na­tions.

Not only is soft power at stake. In 2012 two Ira­nian war­ships docked at Port Su­dan, just across the Red Sea from the Saudi coast, fol­low­ing years of close ties be­tween Khar­toum and Tehran.

Since then Riyadh has in­vested around $11 bil­lion in Su­dan and ig­nored in­ter­na­tional ar­rest war­rants on Pres­i­dent Omar al-Bashir to al­low him to visit the king­dom. In Jan­uary, Khar­toum cut off ties with Tehran.

Dji­bouti and So­ma­lia did the same. A doc­u­ment seen by Reuters in Jan­uary showed Mogadishu had re­ceived an aid pack­age of $50 mil­lion shortly be­fore­hand. But Dji­bouti de­nied in Fe­bru­ary that its break was mo­ti­vated by money and ac­cused Tehran of spread­ing sec­tar­ian ten­sion in Africa.

Over­all, Riyadh be­lieves its ap­proach is suc­ceed­ing. “Ira­nian ex­pan­sion­ism is al­most stopped,” an ad­viser to Deputy Crown Prince Muham­mad bin Sal­man said last month.

But at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity-Qatar, Kam­rava said it’s too early to de­clare win­ners and losers.

“In in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions you can rent friends but you can’t buy them. For Saudi Ara­bia the long-term ef­fec­tive­ness of this pol­icy is ques­tion­able be­cause these al­liances are based on purely tac­ti­cal or com­mer­cial re­la­tions,” he said.

(Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters)

SAUDI ARA­BIA’S For­eign Min­is­ter Adel al-Jubeir.

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