RIYADH — At a late-night reading earlier this week, a self-styled poet held up his hand for silence and began a riff on the events in 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.”
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 openly decry Iran’s growing power. Religious leaders have begun talking about a “Persian onslaught” that threatens the existence of Islam itself. In the salons and diwans of Riyadh, the “Iranian threat” is raised almost as openly and as frequently as the stock market.
“Iran has become more dangerous than Israel itself,” said Sheik Musa bin Abdulaziz, editor of Al Salafi magazine, a self-described moderate in the Salafi fundamentalist Muslim movement that seeks to return Islam to its roots. “The Iranian revolution has come to renew the Persian presence in the region. This is the real clash of civilizations.”
Many here said they believed a showdown with Iran was inevitable. After several years of a thaw in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, analysts said the Saudis were growing extremely concerned that Iran may build a nuclear bomb and become the de facto superpower in the region.
In recent weeks, the Saudis, with other Gulf countries, have announced plans to develop peaceful nuclear power; officials have feted Harith al Dhari, head of Iraq’s Muslim Scholars Committee, which has links to the Iraqi insurgency; and have motioned that they may begin to support Iraq’s Sunnis. All were meant to send a message that Saudi Arabia intends to get serious about Iran’s growing prowess in the region.
“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, as one argument goes, or diplomatically, having been offered a grand bargain it would find hard to refuse.
On Tuesday, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the ailing foreign minister, confirmed Turki’s resignation for personal reasons. Privately, Saudi royals and analysts with knowledge of the situation said he resigned because of deep differences with the national security minister, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, over the government’s plan to deal with Iran.
Just days before President George W. Bush met with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq, the outlines of a new plan were made public by Nawaf Obeid, a Saudi security consultant who wrote in an op-ed article in The Washington Post that the Saudis would intervene and back the Sunnis “to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.”
Obeid was then fired from his job, but he is widely expected to return to the government in some capacity.
A member of the royal family with knowledge of the discussions, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the fight is between those like Bandar, who has sought to closely back the Bush administration as it seeks a toughened policy on Iran, and those like Turki who have sought to avoid taking clear sides in the sectarian conflict and believe the only solution to the problem is in negotiating with the Iranians.
“The possibility of having conflict is very high,” said Abdlerahman Rashid, managing director of the Arab 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.”
Turki, Clemons and palace insiders said, lobbied Washington for a broader policy that eschewed a military confrontation in favor of a policy that will strike Iran’s interests. In effect, Clemons said, Turki had sought a plan mirroring the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, led by James Baker, a former secretary of state, and Lee Hamilton, a former congressman, 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.”
In November, the Saudi royal said, King Abdullah presented Vice President Dick Cheney with a plan to raise oil production — to effectively drop the price — in the hope of sparking economic turmoil for Iran and ostensibly to force it to slow the flow of funds to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Shiite militias in Iraq without getting directly involved in a confrontation.
An adviser to Bandar said there were no divisions over policy and many officials have been at pains in recent days to prove there is no split.
On Thursday, The Post reported that Adel al-Jubeir, a close associate of Bandar, would be appointed the new ambassador to the United States. Many Saudis have also grown openly critical of the country’s policy on Iraq, citing its adherence to a U.S.-centric policy at the cost of Saudi interests.
More pessimistic analysts here said the country has lost significant strength and stature in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, even as Iran, with its populist, anti- U.S. agenda, has reaped the benefits.
“The Saudis made a big mistake by following the Americans when they had no plan,” said Khalid al-Dakhil of King Saud University. “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.”
The clerics described what they called a Persian-Jewish partnership to besiege the Sunnis.
“There is a segment in this country that will do everything the U.S. wants,” said Turki al-Rasheed, founding director of the Saudi Voter Center, which lobbies for democracy in the Gulf. “But fortunately the big leaders know this whole agenda will take us to hell.”