Mideast turmoil rattles Iran-Saudi standoff

AP News
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Posted: Feb 24, 2011 7:55 AM
Mideast turmoil rattles Iran-Saudi standoff

Saudi Arabia's rulers answered the Arab world's winter of rage with money: throwing $36 billion into housing and other social assistance channels in attempts to quell rumblings of dissent. Iran's president offered more bombast as Tehran tries to project sympathy for protesters.

The two approaches this week _ largesse versus rhetoric _ captures the style and stakes for the region's heavyweight rivals as Iran hunts for gains and Saudi tries hard to stamp out any threats.

Already, the region has been reshaped by the fall of decades-old regimes and growing pressures on others, including Moammar Gadhafi's 42-year rule in Libya. But the ultimate questions for many are whether the pro-Western Saudi monarchy can ride out the unrest, and if Iran will capitalize on the changes with more footholds and influence in areas closely tied to Washington's interests.

"If an uprising occurs in Saudi Arabia, it will have a dramatic impact that is off the charts," said Theodore Karasik, a regional affairs expert at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. "Policymakers will have to grapple with it for decades."

Both nations have been touched by the region's two-month-old turmoil: Iran with a renewal of street clashes and Saudi's rulers facing rare challenges to their absolute power, including a call for protests March 11.

Their responses, meanwhile, have reflected their mutual suspicions and their own survival instincts.

Saudi authorities have stood strongly behind Bahrain's Sunni monarchy, which is under siege by a revolt from that tiny kingdom's Shiite majority after decades of grievances over discrimination and other abuses. For the Saudis _ and the rest of the Gulf's Sunni rulers _ the Shiites in Bahrain represent a potential beachhead for Shiite powerhouse Iran.

On Wednesday, Bahrain's monarch held urgent talks in neighboring Saudi Arabia with King Abdullah only hours after he returned home from recuperating from back surgery. In a clear sign of concern, Abdullah made the decree for the flood of cash into social programs and bank funds even before his plane touched down from Morocco.

Social media sites have been buzzing with appeals for a pro-reform march next month and calls for more freedoms, including lifting some of the strict limits on women such as bans on driving and voting. Activists also are pushing for the release of university professors jailed for forming a political party.

"We are witnessing a rebellion of the Arab peoples throughout the Arab world," said Nicholas Burns, Nicholas Burns, a former top State Department diplomat with long experience in the region. "While it may be most acute in Bahrain and Libya, there is every reason to believe that it will continue to spread for the time being."

Iran, meanwhile, has shown again its split personality. Its leaders, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have portrayed Iran as a sort of father figure for the pro-democracy movements, which they claim have taken inspiration from its Islamic Revolution against the U.S.-backed shah.

At the same time, Iranian authorities are showing no mercy to oppositions groups in a country rejuvenated by the chain-reaction uprisings. Protesters' chants were similar to those during the chaos after Ahmadinejad's disputed elections in 2009, but with a current twist.

"Ben Ali, Mubarak, it's Seyed Ali's turn," protesters cried last week, linking the toppled Tunisian and Egyptian presidents with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Riot police moved in with tear gas and batons.

"It is unimaginable that there is someone who kills and bombards his own people. This is very grotesque," Ahmadinejad said Wednesday on national TV after Gadhafi's forces attacked protesters.

More than once, the Obama administration and others have taken jabs at Tehran's "hypocrisy."

But Western policy makers cannot so easily dismiss the prospect that Iran could come out of the Mideast shake-ups with some new opportunities _ just as the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cleared the way for Iran gaining major influence with Shiite brethren.

One longtime foe, Hosni Mubarak, is gone. Egypt's emerging political class, which includes Islamist groups, is unlikely to be so tightly glued to U.S. policies on Iran. The Shiite-led uprising in Bahrain and relentless pressure on the American-allied president in Yemen also could hand Iran some new political space in the region.

And any significant cracks in the king's hold on Saudi Arabia, which has a small Shiite minority, would undoubtedly be hailed by Tehran.

Iran sent two warships through the Suez Canal this week for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution on a voyage to Syria that could take the vessels just outside Israeli waters.

Iran's plans for the Mediterranean were announced before Egypt's protests threatened Mubarak's regime. But it was a significant display of Tehran's confidence and efforts to expand its military reach beyond the Gulf, where the Bahrain-based U.S. 5th Fleet is the Pentagon's main counterweight.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard sent ships on a courtesy call to Qatar in January and held navy maneuvers with Oman this month in further signs of expanding ties in the Gulf.

The Dubai-based analyst Karasik said Iran increasingly views itself "as a pure regional hegemon because of the uprisings."

"They're taking advantage of the strategic change," he said.

It also suggests that Washington's clout could be slipping as its old-guard friends fall way or face demands for serious political overhauls.

"The rising tide of people power is so intense that the Middle East will either become democratic or will come under more stern control," said Ehsan Ahrari, a regional analyst and commentator based in Alexandria, Virginia. "Either way, the days of U.S. capabilities to influence events seem to be numbered."

There is still no clear signal about how far the protest wave with reach. The next test may come in Kuwait, where the nation's strong opposition groups have called for rallies outside parliament on March 8.

Many experts see a messy interregnum in the region with various groups competing for the upper hand and international investors running scared. The only obvious takeaway so far is that the political voices in the new Mideast will be far younger, deeply Web savvy and come in greater varieties _ all of which could alter the rules of the Saudi-Iran standoff that has defined the region for decades.

The players include Egypt's once-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and Bahrain's majority Shiites who have long been under the thumb of the kingdom's Sunni rulers.

"There will be trial and error in the combat for a new era," said Labib Kamhawi, a political analyst in Jordan. "But people, especially the young generation, seem strong and determined to succeed."

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Associated Press writers Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, and Adam Schreck in Dubai contributed to this report.