After Sunni-Shi’ite tensions have risen in Iraq and elsewhere (including even Dearborn, Michigan) for many months, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met with King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh on Sunday. “Iran and Saudi Arabia,” said Ahmadinejad later in a statement, “are two great and powerful Islamic countries and accordingly have numerous mutual obligations and responsibilities in the Islamic world and Middle East.” King Abdullah concurred, saying: “Today, the Islamic world has many enemies who want to sow discord between the two countries, but our two nations are Muslims with a united belief and therefore enjoying good relations.”
Relations may not be as good as all that. This meeting was President Ahmadinejad’s first state visit to Riyadh, although he did visit Mecca in December 2005 for the infamous Organization of the Islamic Conference meeting at which the protests against the cartoons of Muhammad that ran in a Danish newspaper were planned. Ahmadinejad is following it up with a meeting in Tehran on Tuesday with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, whose terror group is funded by Iran as well as by Saudi individuals.
It is noteworthy that Mashaal would travel to Tehran after his Mecca summit with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas notably failed to calm tensions between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah party that constitutes Hamas’ chief rival. It is not the first time that Ahmadinejad has attempted to position himself as the leader of Sunnis as well as Shi’ite Muslims. Last summer, when Israeli armies moved into Lebanon, the President of Iran spoke as if he were already the recognized leader of the worldwide Islamic umma: “If the Zionist regime commits another stupid move and attacks Syria,” he warned, “this will be considered like attacking the whole Islamic world and this regime will receive a very fierce response.”
As Ahmadinejad has taken upon himself to speak for the Islamic world and Muslim nations, and has pursued his nuclear program so energetically and defiantly, he has made the Saudis increasingly nervous. And with good reason: the Saudi Kingdom itself is home to a small but restive Shi’ite minority, and an increasingly confident Shi’ite majority is just north of the Kingdom in Iraq. And Iran/Saudi tensions go back a long way: Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran in 1981, leading the Islamic Republic to call for the overthrow of the House of Saud.
Had Saddam not crossed the House of Saud by invading Kuwait in 1990, he might still be in power today. It seems that Ahmadinejad is determined not to make the same mistake. He journeyed to Riyadh to receive, if not the blessing of King Abdullah on his adventurism and jockeying for Islamic leadership, then at least a signal from the King that the Saudis would not resist him as long as he doesn’t interfere with their interests. However, at the same time, Iran’s former consul-general in Dubai, Adel Assadinia, charges that Iran has planted sleeper cells in the Gulf states to recruit Shi’ites and to sow civil strife, as well as to attack American interests, if the U.S. or Israel attacks Iran. In that event, reports the Telegraph, “such cells would be instructed to foment long-dormant sectarian grievances and attack the extensive American and European business interests in wealthy states such as Dubai and Saudi Arabia. Such a scenario would bring chaos to the Gulf, one of the few areas of the Middle East that remains prosperous and has largely pro-Western governments.”
If Assadinia is telling the truth, Ahmadinejad’s trip to Saudi Arabia may have been his attempt to keep his friends close and his enemies closer. Assadinia says that the agents in the Gulf states were instructed to “to tell the Europeans that Iran wanted a good relationship with them, when in fact Iran was involved in terrorism.” That could well have been the very same gambit Ahmadinejad was playing with King Abdullah, while continuing to work for a Shi’ite renaissance in the Islamic world. For Sunnis, as well as for Europeans, Israelis, and Americans, the results of this and Ahmadinejad’s other gambits could be nothing short of cataclysmic.