The stalled negotiations on Iran’s nuclear dossier between Iran and the West, the Arab Spring in the Middle East and the ongoing crisis in Syria are all gradually widening the chasm and intensifying the existing disputes between Iran and the Gulf states. As a result, tensions between the “Sunni camp” led by Saudi Arabia and the “Shiite camp” led by Iran are brewing.
This tension is seen in the various hot spots in the Middle East and, at times, even extends beyond it (revelation of the Iranian Intelligence Minister’s attempt to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States.) Hezbollah, which is subservient to Tehran, is fighting in Syria alongside Bashar al-Assad’s forces in an attempt to save his regime from the “Free Syrian Army” and assorted militias that have sprung up over the past two years. In contrast Saudi and Qatari aid (money, weaponry and extensive propaganda assistance) flows freely to the forces attempting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Each side maintains that the other is responsible for the continuation of the crisis. Iran tried – more as a public diplomacy measure – to establish a contact group made up of Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and as part of this group to present the 9-step plan for resolution of the Syrian crisis.
From time to time, Iran emphasizes that the solution to the crisis is diplomacy. In addition to the media assaults on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which are working against the Assad regime, Iran has recently also started attacking Jordan, which according to Tehran is allowing “al-Qaeda” operatives to travel through the Kingdom to help the Syrian rebels. The Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, Hassan Firouzabadi, claimed that Jordan was allowing Israeli aircraft to travel through its airspace, “betraying the Arab world and jeopardizing the interests of the Islamic ummah.” This statement indicates that the traditional conflict between Iran and the Gulf states has extended into the Hashemite Kingdom and, in fact, opens up a front with the moderate Arab countries, which have an interest in strengthening relations with the United States.
Stronger military cooperation between Iran and the Gulf States, particularly in terms of deployment of advanced (Iranian) missile-protection systems and the continued US and Western presence in the Persian Gulf, adds fuel to the fire in the conflict between Iran and the Gulf states. Additionally, the continued Shiite unrest in Bahrain (home to the Fifth Fleet of the United States Navy), which Iran has been stoking in terms of intelligence and subversive action as well as on the propaganda front (Iranian broadcast channels in Arabic and English), adds yet another layer of tension between Iran and the regional players. Iran has also in the past criticized Saudi military involvement in Bahrain to protect the monarchy. In terms of propaganda, Iran has made it clear that the Arab Spring will not skip Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States. A recent editorial in conservative newspaper, Jomhouri Eslami, stated that “all the Arab Spring indicators of a revolution like in other Arab countries exist in Saudi Arabia,” and that recent arrests of Shiite clergymen will not save the Kingdom. The Majlis (Iranian parliament) recently discussed this issue, and from time to time the Iranian government is criticized for not doing enough to protect the Shiites in the Gulf states.
In reality, at the military/intelligence level, Iran is using the IRGC to assist Shiite operatives throughout the Persian Gulf and Yemen. Saudi Arabia recently uncovered a spy ring that was gathering intelligence in Saudi Arabia at the direction of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) and tasked with gathering information about economic and military infrastructures. Iran has denied the allegations.
In the end, Iran is continuing to engage in subversive activity in various arenas in the Middle East that constitute the regions of conflict with the Gulf states and the West. This activity is part of the policy to export the Revolution, which given the Arab Spring and the changes in this region, Iran believes can be intensified. Its continued efforts to promote its nuclear program are designed to support this activity and in the future to grant it a type of defensive shield and protection that will enable it to be promoted through more daring steps and acts.