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Iranian Influence Gives Saudi Arabia Heartburn

The Iranian post-sanction era is a cause of concern for Iran’s major foe, Saudi Arabia. Iran’s rising influence in the Middle East and the possibility that one day Iran might acquire a nuclear weapon – is giving Saudi Arabia heartburn.

Iranian influence in the region is growing due to a number of developments. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese militant organization, have been operating beyond Iran’s border and inside other Arab states, namely Syria and Iraq. Iran was successful in establishing substantial influence within Lebanon and there is a strong presence of Hezbollah within Lebanon. The Iran-influenced government of Iraq consults with Iran on most matters, even petty issues.

A pro-Iranian regime, led by Bashar al-Assad, is still holding onto power in war-torn Syria and Iran has been increasingly gaining control over the Shia (Shiite) community within Bahrain which has a Shia majority population under a Sunni monarch. Iran has helped the Houthis, an armed group in Yemen, successfully capture the Yemeni capital, Sana’a.

Last but not least, the nuclear deal among the six nuclear powers and Iran was a political, diplomatic and economic achievement for Iran, creating the possibility of strengthening Iran’s regional influence.

All these factors are causing Saudi Arabia to take unilateral steps, bringing a change to its long practiced policy of multilateral actions (along with western allies) against Iran.

Iran does not possess any real economic strength at the moment because of the effect of the decades-long economic sanctions imposed by the international community. Gulf policymakers, especially those in Saudi Arabia, fear that if an economically weak Iran has the ability to wreak havoc in the region, what would happen if it does acquire economic strength?

Moreover, once Iran starts to gain an economic advantage, it can push to consolidate and expand its already established influence in Lebanon.

Iran certainly would not shy away from showering Hezbollah with financing in order to facilitate the expansion of Hezbollah’s activities beyond Lebanon and into the greater Middle East.

A strong Iranian economy can also encourage Iran’s political elites to back Shia communities within neighboring Sunni monarchies in order to destabilize these countries which is similar to what Iran has been doing in Bahrain.

An economically solvent Iran may not hesitate to facilitate daring sectarian moves across the region. It would not be surprising if Iran backs further engagement of militiamen in order to take control of the capital of an independent state in the region, similar to what it did in Yemen through Houthi militants, who represent the voice of a very small portion of the Yemeni population.

Saudi Arabia now fears that the Iran nuclear deal might not block Iran’s path to the bomb. Rather, the deal may act as a cover for Iran to build nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia believes that as the deal rewards Iran financially, it may enhance the Iranian regime’s capability of financing and arming militant groups like Hezbollah.

Thus, the post-sanction era may bring prosperity to Iran which concerns its foes, especially, Saudi Arabia.

For the last several years, Arabian Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, have been concerned over Iran’s likelihood of acquiring a nuclear weapon. The inking of the Iran nuclear deal has only helped to increase such fears, and Gulf States have been boosting their defense capabilities further as a hedge against Iran.

The Iran nuclear deal has been interpreted by Saudi Arabia to be a window for Iran to develop its nascent nuclear-weapon program. Because of growing Iranian influence in the region and in anticipation of Iran achieving a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia has become more cautious in its defense mechanisms. In this prevailing environment, there is every reason to believe that Saudi Arabia may, perhaps secretly, move towards developing its own nuclear weapon capabilities.

Perhaps, this is the beginning of another nuke race.