By HASSAN M. FATTAH
December 22, 2006
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 21 — At a late-night reading this week, a self-styled poet raised his hand for silence and began a riff on neighboring Iraq, in the old style of Bedouin storytellers.
“Saddam Hussein was a real leader who deserved our support,” he began, making up the lines as he went. “He kept Iraq stable and peaceful,” he added, “and most of all he fought back the Iranians.” He continued, “His one mistake was invading Kuwait.”
Across the kingdom, in both official and casual conversation, once-quiet concern over the chaos in Iraq and Iran’s growing regional influence has burst into the open.
Saudi newspapers now denounce Iran’s growing power. Religious leaders here, who view Shiism as heresy, have begun talking about a “Persian onslaught” that threatens Islam. In the salons and diwans of Riyadh, the “Iranian threat” is raised almost as frequently as the stock market.
“Iran has become more dangerous than Israel itself,” said Sheik Musa bin Abdulaziz, editor of the magazine Al Salafi, who describes himself as a moderate Salafi, a fundamentalist Muslim movement. “The Iranian revolution has come to renew the Persian presence in the region. This is the real clash of civilizations.”
Many here say a showdown with Iran is inevitable. After several years of a thaw in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Saudis are growing concerned that Iran may build a nuclear bomb and become the de facto superpower in the region.
In recent weeks, the Saudis, with other Persian Gulf countries, have announced plans to develop peaceful nuclear power. Saudi officials publicly welcomed the Iraqi Harith al-Dhari, whose Muslim Scholars Association has links to the insurgency, during a visit in October, and they have indicated that they may support Iraq’s Sunnis over the majority Shiites with links to Iran. All were meant to send a message to Iran.
“You need to create a strategic challenge to Iran,” said Steve Clemons, senior fellow and director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. “To some degree, what the Saudis are doing is puffing up because they see nobody else in the region doing so.”
Yet a growing debate here has centered on how Iran should be confronted: head on, with Saudi Arabia throwing its lot in with the full force of the United States, or diplomatically, with a grand bargain Iran would find hard to refuse?
The apparent split burst into the open last week when Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington, abruptly resigned after just 15 months. The resignation is seen by many here as part of a long-running battle over Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy.
On Tuesday, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the country’s ailing foreign minister, confirmed the ambassador’s resignation, citing personal reasons. Privately some Saudi officials and analysts with knowledge of the situation say Prince Turki resigned over deep differences with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the national security minister and former Washington ambassador, over how to deal with Iran.
Prince Bandar is believed to favor the tough American approach of confronting Iran, analysts say, while Prince Turki advocates more diplomatic tactics, including negotiating with Iran.
If this is the case, then the successor to Prince Turki as Saudi ambassador — Adel al-Jubeir, a foreign policy adviser to King Abdullah — is a wild card, Saudi and American officials said Thursday.
Polished and American-educated, Mr. Jubeir, 44, once worked for Prince Bandar when he was ambassador to Washington. Mr. Jubeir became well known as the public face of Saudi Arabia, defending Saudi policy after the Sept. 11 attacks, appearing on talk shows and escorting NBC’s White House correspondent at the time, Campbell Brown, around town.
But Saudi officials said that Mr. Jubeir did not necessarily share Prince Bandar’s opinions. “Basically, the king is putting his own man in America,” one Saudi official said. “Adel will be a direct line between the king and the administration.”
Mr. Clemons, whose blog, The Washington Note, first reported Mr. Jubeir’s appointment on Wednesday, said Mr. Jubeir “is someone who can help de-escalate tensions between quadroons of the royal family. I don’t think he necessarily brings Bandar’s views on Iran to the table.”
Just days before President Bush met with the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, the outlines of what seemed to be a new plan were made public by Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi security consultant. In an op-ed article in The Washington Post, he said that if the United States withdrew from Iraq, the Saudis would back the Sunnis “to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.”
Saudi Arabia said Mr. Obaid did not speak on its behalf, and he was subsequently dismissed from his position. He is widely expected to return to the government in some capacity. And King Abdullah warned Vice President Dick Cheney during a meeting in Riyadh three weeks ago that Saudi Arabia would back the Sunnis if the Americans withdrew from Iraq and a civil war ensued.
“The possibility of having conflict is very high,” said Abdelrahman Rashid, managing director of the satellite news channel Al Arabiya and a respected Saudi columnist. “Who will face the Iranians tomorrow? Just the Israelis alone? I don’t think that is possible.” Prince Turki, Mr. Clemons and palace insiders say, had lobbied Washington for a broader policy that eschews a military confrontation in favor of a policy that will strike Iran’s interests. In effect, Mr. Clemons said, Prince Turki had sought a plan mirroring some of the recommendations in the Iraq Study Group report but with a harder edge.
“Turki is not playing nice guy at all,” he said. “Essentially, the Saudis are engagers. They want to weave together a blurry ambiguity to what they want to do.”
A member of the Saudi royal family with knowledge of the discussions between Mr. Cheney and King Abdullah said the king had presented Mr. Cheney with a plan to raise oil production to force down the price, in hopes of causing economic turmoil for Iran without becoming directly involved in a confrontation.
Shortly afterward, Mr. Obaid’s op-ed article was published, building on earlier public comments that Saudi Arabia intends to get serious about Iran and may back Sunnis in Iraq in the event of an abrupt United States pullout. Neither Prince Bandar nor Prince Turki was available for comment for this article. An adviser to Prince Bandar said there were no divisions over policy, and many officials have been at pains in recent days to prove there is no split.
Many Saudis have grown openly critical of the country’s policy on Iraq, citing its adherence to an American-centric policy at the cost of Saudi interests. More pessimistic analysts here say the country has lost significant strength and stature in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian areas, while Iran, with its populist, anti-American agenda, has benefited.
“The Saudis made a big mistake by following the Americans when they had no plan,” said Khalid al-Dakhil, a professor of political sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh. “If the Saudis had intervened earlier and helped the Sunnis they could have found a political solution to their differences, instead of the bloodshed we are seeing today.”
Last week, a group of prominent Saudi clerics and university professors called on the government to begin actively backing Iraq’s Sunnis. The clerics described what they called a Persian-Jewish partnership besieging the Sunnis.
“There is a segment in this country that will do everything the U.S. wants,” said Turki al-Rasheed, who runs a group that seeks to encourage democracy in the Persian Gulf. “But fortunately the big leaders know this whole agenda will take us to hell.”
Rasheed Abou al-Samh contributed reporting from Jidda, Saudi Arabia, and Helene Cooper from Washington.