The announcement of the alleged Iranian assassination plot against the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington serves as a stark reminder that the old Middle East — the one of geopolitical rivalries, conspiracies and the ancient Sunni-Shiite divide — remains very much alive.
And now, as the uncertainties of the new Middle East collide with the realities of the old, the outcome could be explosive, many fear.
“Somebody in Iran will have to pay the price,” Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal said at an oil conference in London on Wednesday, in a comment that underscored the depth of Saudi anger at the alleged attempt on the life of one of Saudi King Abdullah’s most trusted confidants.
“I can see a crisis coming. I can see a wider confrontation,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist who identified Syria as the most likely venue. “But on what scale and how it will happen, I don’t know.”
Countries focused inward
The relatively measured response of Iran, which hotly denied the allegations but did not threaten retaliation, as well as the continued preoccupation of most regional leaders with their own domestic problems, suggest no immediate danger of military escalation.
“Iran won’t respond because it doesn’t need to, and the Saudis are not in a position to retaliate because they have a lot of problems of their own,” said Oussama Safa, an independent political analyst in Beirut. “This is definitely bound to blow up at some point, but right now the region is more distracted by problems of the Arab Spring.”
On the streets of Beirut, the venue for one of the most recent confrontations between Iran’s Shiite allies and Sunnis supported by the United States and Saudi Arabia, people were dismissive of the alleged plot.
“This is another game being played by America and Iran,” said Jamal Baghdadi, who sells tourist knickknacks in downtown Beirut. He said he was confident there would be no replay of the conflict that began in 2006 with an Israeli onslaught aimed at crushing Iran’s Shiite ally Hezbollah and ended with Hezbollah seizing control of mostly Sunni West Beirut in 2008 — one of the more overt examples of the kind of proxy confrontation that some fear could erupt anew.
The popular rebellions of the past 10 months had detracted attention from the very real threat posed to the region’s stability by Iran and its nuclear program, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. The plot allegations promise to restore that issue, which dominated the region’s discourse for much of the past decade, to center stage, along with the broader struggle for supremacy in the region between Iran and its mostly Shiite allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and the United States, through its relationships with Sunni Saudi Arabia and Israel.