Although few think that an armed clash between the two countries is likely, U.S. officials and Middle East experts see the beginnings of a prolonged freeze in diplomatic relations along with growing risks of conflict between proxy groups in a region where Iranian-backed Shiites and Saudi-funded Sunnis have long competed for dominance.
“The real battlefields are in Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Each country is seeking to blame the other for stirring up trouble in the region, with Iran portraying the Bahraini uprising as a “war against corruption and imperialism” while the Saudis see a broad conspiracy by Iranian Shiites to expand their influence, he said.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have been in regional competition for decades. Both nations depend heavily on oil revenue, which Iran has employed for keeping its 1979 Islamic revolution afloat, while Saudi Arabia has used its oil and financial leverage to position itself as a main ally of the United States in the Persian Gulf region.
With the fall of other Sunni bulwarks, including Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Saudi Arabia increasingly regards itself as the last defense against Iranian dominance in the region.
For now, the focal point of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia is Bahrain, the tiny island kingdom that is tethered to Saudi Arabia by a 16-mile causeway and is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. Responding to an appeal from Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy, at least 1,000 Saudi troops entered Bahrain on March 14 to help drive out protesters who had paralyzed the capital’s central business district for nearly a month.
After crushing the uprising, Bahraini security forces began systematically dismantling its support network, closing independent news outlets, arresting activists and moving to outlaw opposition political parties.
The moves drew condemnation from Iran, while Bahrain and other gulf states in turn accused Tehran’s ruling Shiite clerics of secretly backing the uprising. Since the crackdown, Bahrain has remained relatively calm, at least on the surface, while the war of words between Iran and Saudi Arabia has continued to escalate.
After rock-throwing clashes last week in front of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, Saudi Arabia’s deputy foreign minister, Prince Turki bin Mohammed, warned that Riyadh would be “obliged to withdraw our diplomatic mission from Tehran” if the embassy continues to be attacked.