"Iran is not the enemy, Israel is the enemy," the head of the Center for Strategic Studies in Saudi Arabia declared in an interview with Al Jazeera. This was his response to a question on whether the $60 billion arms deal between Riyadh and Washington was meant to deter Iran. The American efforts to portray the deal as aimed against Tehran doesn't fit with the Saudi point of view, and it seems this isn't the only subject over which these two countries fail to see eye to eye.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia twice last week, and Iran reported that a senior Iranian official would visit Riyadh soon. It's not clear if it will be Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki or the head of the National Security Council, Saeed Jalili.
But the frequent contacts between Iran and Saudi Arabia are not over the big arms deal or Iran's nuclear plans. The two countries have concluded that they need to reach an agreement on two other issues regarding their sphere of influence in the region: Iraq and Lebanon.
Regarding Lebanon, Iran is trying to persuade Saudi Arabia to help stop the work of the special international tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. This would prevent the collapse of the Lebanese regime. While Iran is worried about Hezbollah's status, it also doesn't want Lebanon to collapse or fall into another civil war, whose results cannot be ensured.
In this respect, Tehran doesn't have to make too great an effort to get Riyadh's support. This became clear last week to Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to Beirut, when he visited Riyadh. During his meeting with King Abdullah, the monarch tried to figure out America's position if the international court's work were stopped. Arab sources say Feltman was "furious but restrained," and made it clear to the king that Washington was determined to support the tribunal.
With all due respect to the American insistence, if the client that is supposed to pay Washington $60 billion decides it's vital to halt the tribunal's work, it won't make do with consulting the Americans. It will throw its full weight behind the efforts. Meanwhile, the indictment the tribunal is due to publish is not expected before February.
After all, what is happening in Lebanon - and Saudi Arabia can't be accused of not supporting the establishment of the tribunal - is not isolated from other regional issues that involve the Saudis and Iran. Riyadh, which paid millions of dollars in Ayad Allawi's election campaign in Iraq, is aware that his chances of being elected prime minister are diminishing. The aid last time helped Allawi win two seats more in parliament than his rival, outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Meanwhile, in the past two weeks, Maliki has visited Syria, Turkey, Iran and Egypt in an attempt to garner support. He is trying to persuade Iraq's neighbors that he is worthy of being prime minister again. But that's not enough. To win, he has to convince his rivals at home to forgo their aspirations of being Iraqi prime minister and join him.
No dream team
Tehran understands that it can't get the Iraqi prime minister it was hoping for, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. But it has "convinced" the influential Iraqi religious leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, who is living in Iran until completing religious studies there, to support Maliki. Maliki is not exactly Iran's dream prime minister, especially considering that he accused Tehran and Damascus of terrorist involvement.
He is also not a natural partner of Sadr, who won 39 of the 325 seats in parliament. Sadr has also not completely forgiven Maliki for sending Iraqi troops to wage a bloody battle against Sadr's forces and arresting many of his supporters, some of whom are still in prison. But the Iranian pressure mounted, so Sadr agreed to announce his support for Maliki.
Nevertheless, even with Sadr's support, Maliki will not be able to set up a coalition without getting at least one other bloc to support him, either the Kurds or Allawi. That's why Iran needs Saudi Arabia's help to try to persuade its proteges in Iraq, especially Allawi, to join such a coalition or at least not work against it.
For its part, Saudi Arabia is not prepared to give Iran gifts, but it also doesn't want to lose all influence in Iraq. In Iraq as in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia realizes it's in a relatively inferior position vis-a-vis Iran; all it can do in these countries is to prevent Tehran from wielding exclusive influence. This is what the discussion between Saudi Arabia and Iran is now focusing on: deliberations during which Riyadh will try to divide its sphere of influence in Iraq and Lebanon with Iran.
One significant element is missing from these moves - the United States. Washington seeks to promote the process at the international tribunal on the Lebanese issue, blame Hezbollah for the Hariri assassination, see Allawi as Iraqi prime minister and block Iran's influence in the region.
Meanwhile, it seems the Americans are aiming too high. The real game is in the hands of local forces that are sketching the strategic map, which will be presented to Washington as a fait accompli.
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