Saudi-Iranian hostility hits boiling point
By M K Bhadrakumar
Conventional wisdom suggests that the terrorist strike by Jundallah in
southeastern Iran on Sunday might have had the backing of the United States or
Britain. But Jundallah today holds "fatal" attraction for a number of foreign
powers that are interested in disorienting Iran's policies.
Both Washington and London scrambled with unusual speed to not only disclaim
any hand in the strike that killed seven senior commanders of the Iranian
Revolutionary Guards Corps as well as 42 other people, but to condemn it
in strong terms.
On Sunday, a US State Department spokesman, Ian Kelly, was instructed to issue
a categorical US denial. "We condemn this act of terrorism and mourn the loss
of innocent lives. Reports of
alleged US involvement are completely false," he said.
In London, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Office said, "We reject in the
strongest terms any assertion that this attack has anything to do with
Britain." She said Britain condemned the incident in restive Sistan-Balochistan
province in the southwest as a terrorist attack and that "terrorism is
abhorrent wherever it occurs. Our sympathies go to those who have been killed
or injured in the strike and their families".
The fact is that the attack was staged with careful timing. For one thing, the
next major step in the diplomatic process involving technical-level discussions
was to take place in Vienna on Monday to work out the details of a plan to ship
a majority of Iran's stockpile of lightly enriched uranium out of the country
to be enriched in Russia to a higher grade.
Torpedoing nuclear talks?
Both the US and Iran have reasons to seek progress at the talks in Vienna. US
President Barack Obama has a personal stake in the outcome.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei,
said on Monday the talks on Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium had got "off
to a good start". Delegates from Iran, the US, Russia and France talked for
two-and-a-half hours and agreed to meet again on Tuesday morning. "Most
technical issues have been discussed," ElBaradei said.
According to details revealed by Time magazine, quoting US administration
officials, "Obama personally weighed in three times during secret, multiparty
negotiations with the Iranians over the last four months - in what has become
not just a test of Iran's nuclear intentions but also a test of Obama's effort
to limit Iran's nuclear ambitions." Tehran is suspected by many of developing a
nuclear weapons program, a charge it denies.
The backroom talks began as early as June when Obama astutely seized the
opening provided by Iran's acute need of specially manufactured plates of
enriched uranium to produce isotopes for caner treatment, X-rays and
insecticides to offer to Tehran via the director general of the IAEA hat the US
could arrange for the manufacture of the specialized plates by using Iran's
low-enriched uranium stashes produced in its Natanz plant.
Obama personally got Moscow and Paris to agree to the idea of Russia accepting
the low-enriched uranium from Iran and to enrich it to the level needed to
power Iran's research reactor so that in a follow-up step, France could turn it
into the specialized plates that are used to produce isotopes.
As Time put it, "What followed was a careful set of high-level negotiations
between Iran, the IAEA, Russia, France and the US to iron out the details." At
the meeting at Geneva on October 1 between Iran and the key Western powers,
Russia and China, "US negotiator, William Burns, had a one-on-one conversation
with his Iranian counterpart to confirm the amount of uranium involved in the
deal, and they agreed to the October 19 meeting to determine the details of the
Clearly, Obama must be out of his mind to have his intelligence agencies mount
a terrorist attack on Iran which would torpedo his own gameplan to address the
Iran nuclear file at the present sensitive juncture.
Not only that, General Stanley A McChrystal and Richard Holbrooke, the two key
US officials involved with Afghanistan, have gone out of their way in recent
weeks to stress the importance of Iran's cooperation. Most certainly, a covert
operation of the magnitude mounted against Iran on Sunday by US special forces
based in Afghanistan ran the high risk of provoking Tehran to retaliate.
McChrystal, the top US general in Afghanistan, from all accounts has a highly
logical mind and intellect. He would know what he could do without earning
Iran's wrath. Despite Tehran's serious doubts about the efficacy of the US's
manipulation of the Afghan presidential election result, it has sat on the
fence and watched the goings-on. If Tehran wanted to make trouble for the US in
Afghanistan, it could have easily done something else.
All in all, therefore, Tehran has been extremely circumspect about jumping to
conclusions regarding the strike on Sunday. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei avoided leveling any direct charges against Washington. He confined
himself to saying, "The enemies should know that such animosities ... cannot
stain the unity of religions and tribes. Those who violate the lives and
security of the people will be punished for their treacherous deeds."
Similar restraint is also noticeable in the statements by President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad, Iran's judiciary chief, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, and Defense
Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar. Curiously, Larijani, a key official dealing
with national security, also suggested that the motive behind the terrorist
attack was to disrupt Shi'ite-Sunni ties. "Such cowardly acts will not have any
effect on the trend of solidarity between the Shi'ites and Sunnis," he said.
This brings us to Saudi Arabia, whose relations with Iran are passing through a
period of mutual antipathy bordering on hostility. Tehran has alleged that
Iranian hajj pilgrims are being maltreated by Saudi authorities and that
Saudi intelligence is accountable for the mysterious disappearance of an
Iranian nuclear scientist who was on pilgrimage to Mecca recently.
Saudi newspapers with links to the establishment have carried in recent months
extremely vituperative attacks against the regime in Tehran, often at a
personal level directed against the Iranian leadership. They have almost gone
into mourning now that the turmoil on Tehran's streets following the disputed
presidential election has receded. Ahmadinejad has alleged that his opposition
kept up links with Riyadh in trying to bring about "regime change" in Tehran.
Saudi Arabia has two great worries over Iran. First, that Obama is pressing
ahead with the normalization process with Tehran - a "thaw" was visible at the
Geneva talks on October 1- and Tehran has begun responding to US overtures. The
worst Saudi nightmare is coming true.
King Abdullah, who had refused to visit Damascus, landed there two weeks ago on
a three-day visit in a desperate attempt to bring Syria into the Arab fold and
to "isolate" Iran. Riyadh is worried that Iran's status as a regional power
will get a massive boost if the normalization process with the US advances, and
that can only be at the cost of Saudi Arabia's pre-eminence in the region.
Riyadh helplessly watches a beeline of other Persian Gulf states reaching out
to Tehran for accommodation.
In other words, Riyadh has a vested interest, which is no less than Israel's,
to disrupt the US-Iran nuclear talks. Ironically, alongside the reports on the
terrorist strike on Sunday, Iranian news agencies were quoting "sources privy
to the Vienna talks" that the Obama administration was "considering official
acknowledgement and endorsement of uranium enrichment in Iran". These "informed
sources close to the talks in Vienna" said the US had "in a series of secret
meetings informed its European partners of Washington's decision on acceptance
of uranium enrichment in Iran".
Riyadh humbled in Yemen
Saudi Arabia's second concern is that as the civil war in Yemen has entered a
crucial phase, Sana'a has sought Iranian mediation. Iranian Foreign Minister
Manouchehr Mottaki has announced plans to visit Yemen. The supreme leader's
foreign policy advisor, Ali Akbar Velayati, has already been there.
Yemeni government forces and Houthi Shi'ites have been engaged in a war in the
northern parts of the country after Yemeni government armed forces unleashed
Operation Scorched Earth on August 11. Sana'a claims the Houthi fighters are
trying to restore the Zaidid imamate (office of an imam) system, which was
overthrown in a 1962 coup. But the Houthi Shi'ites who make up around 40% of
the population say they are defending their minority rights.
Observers view this as a Saudi-Iranian proxy war. The large-scale Saudi
assistance to the Sunni-dominated Sana'a government has not helped the latter
to crush the Houthi fighters and Sana'a is now compelled to seek Tehran's good
offices. It is a huge setback to Saudi prestige and the entire region is
Iran's stature vastly enhances as it steps in as the peacemaker in the
strategically vital country. A recent Iranian statement said:
Islamic Republic of Iran has invariably stressed the importance of Yemen's
territorial integrity and independence, sovereignty and the independence,
sovereignty and national unity of the country. Iran, alongside the Republic of
Yemen, is exerting efforts within the context of peace, security and stability.
We believe that increasing tension and debates that lead to bloodshed do not
serve peace, stability or national unity in Yemen. We hope to see national
unity, security and stability in the republic of Yemen, through measures and
the wisdom of the leadership and government of Yemen.
Tehran makes a point in claiming that Jundallah has links with al-Qaeda and the
Taliban, the two entities with which Saudi intelligence has historically had
dalliance of one kind or anther - more so the Taliban. Significantly, the
Jundallah leadership has been interviewed by al-Arabiya television. In a
December interview, the Jundallah leader, Abd el Malik Regi, threatened attacks
on Tehran if the Iranian government didn't grant the country's Sunnis "full
Pro-Saudi media organizations and the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center have
consistently white-washed Jundallah as a purely "homegrown" Iranian group which
does not enjoy any outside help whatsoever.
What merits attention is that the Jundallah's core cause is the championing of
the rights of Iran's Sunni minority ever since the organization launched its
violent campaign in 2005. Evidently, like any terrorist organization, Jundallah
also has evolved through shifting alliances in its search for external patrons.
An ABC News report in April 2007 alleged secret US (and Pakistani)
encouragement to Jundallah. But it also said, "US officials say the US
relationship with Jundallah is arranged so that the US provides no funding to
the group, which would require an official presidential order [from Obama as of
today]." The tribal sources told the ABC that money from foreign sources were
being funneled to the Jundallah leadership through "Gulf states".
Curiously, a raid mounted on a safe house by Pakistani security forces in
January 2008, while searching for a kidnapped Iranian diplomat in Peshawar,
stumbled on cadres of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni fundamentalist outfit that
is notorious for its brutal attacks on the Shi'ite community in Pakistan. The
Saudi patronage of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is a well-known fact.
There is reason to believe, on careful analysis, Saudi-Iranian hostility has
spilt over into Iran's eastern Sistan-Balochistan province.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.