overthrow of Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein in April 2003 paved the way for Iran to
pursue its ambitions for dominance across the region. Within a month of the
Americans’ 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was reported that Iranian agents had
crossed into Iraq, had based themselves in the Shi’i holy cities, and had begun
promoting Shi’i clerics friendly to Iran.1
Intelligence poured in that Iranian-backed Lebanese Hizballah advisors were
coordinating multiple militia groups in Iraq, and facilitating the flow of
weapons to the insurgency.2 Indeed, the removal of Saddam
from power, constituted an unprecedented strategic opening for Iran to gain
influence in a major oil-producing Gulf Arab state and the Saudis looked on
with alarm as Iran began capitalizing on the opportunity.

At the same time, the collapse of the Ba’athist regime in Iraq breathed new
life into the majority Shi’i population, which now sought to translate its
relative weight in the population into political power. The January 2005
parliamentary elections marked the passage of political hegemony in Iraq from
the Sunni minority to the Shi’i majority.The National Unity Government
established in Baghdad in mid-2006, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
reflected Shi’i dominance in Iraqi politics, and most of the members of his
government developed friendly working relations with Iran. Tensions in Sunni
Arab states mounted as the Iranian Defense Minister signed an agreement with
his Iraqi counterpart to provide military training for and defense cooperation
with the new Iraqi army.3For the first time in modern
history the Shi’a ruled an Arab country. For Iran, this was a golden
opportunity. For Saudi Arabia, it was a monumental disaster.

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The Saudi
government viewed the newly formed Shi’i government in Iraq as an agent of
Iran. From their vantage point, Iran’s interference in Iraq was aimed at
assuming a regional leadership role and pursuing its long-held aspiration to be
the hegemonic power in the Persian Gulf to the detriment of Saudi Arabia.
Therefore, the Saudis and their Arab allies did not discourage their citizens from
interpreting the war through the sectarian lens, because as long as it was
viewed that way—the Saudis hoped—they would gain popular support for a foreign
policy geared toward countering Iran’s influence in the region.4 Jordan’s King ‘Abdullah shared this approach. In an interview he
gave in December 2004 he warned about the danger inherent in the formation of a
“Shi’i crescent”, which he said, threatened to split apart the Arab and Islamic
world.5He conceived of  the “Shi’i crescent”, as a contiguous swatch
of land in which the region’s Shi’a dwelt, stretching from Iran, through the
Persian Gulf – including Iraq (where Shi’a made up about 60 percent of the
population), Bahrain (about 70% of the population), Kuwait (about 30% of the population), and Saudi Arabia (about 13% of the population) –
through Syria (an Iranian proxy) and to Lebanon where about 45% of the population are
Shi’a. The concept, and the deep-seated fears that this represented, spread
throughout the Sunni Arab world like wildfire. Numerous articles bearing titles
like, “The Shi’i Wave”, “The Shi’i Revival”, and “The Shi’i Era” were published
in the electronic and print media of the GCC states. For Sunni Arab publics,
the fear of Iran and the empowerment of Shi’i Islam became a benchmark by which
these states evaluated every development in the region.

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the revival of the
Iraqi Shi’a planted hope in the hearts of the Shi’i communities in GCC
countries. One of the most prominent figures in the Saudi-Shi’i community,
Shaykh Hassan al-Saffar, commented on the link between the Shi’i triumph in Iraq and the plight of
the Shi’a in Saudi Arabia saying, “We are pursuing contacts with officials in
our country to remedy the sectarian discrimination which Shiites citizens sic
complain of”.6From
the perspective of the Wahhabi clerical establishment, empowering the Shi’a was
tantamount to aiding the archenemies of Islam. Wahhabi clerics from both inside
and outside the establishment called for an all-out struggle against the Shi’a.
Moreover, there was a tendency to identify the Saudi Shi’i minority with Iran.7  Turki al-Hamad, a Saudi political analyst, summed it up
this way: “Everybody believes that Shiite Muslims are loyal to Iran more than
to their own countries, but you don’t say it”. He continued, “I’d say, 90% of
the people in Saudi Arabia don’t trust the Shiites”.8

What started out in 2003 as a renewed period of tension between Saudi
Arabia and Iran stemming from the crisis in Iraq, grew into a period of open
hostility between 2005 and 2006 as Iran’s interference in Arab states sowed
instability across the whole region. Iran deepened its economic, military and
political penetration of Iraq; through its proxy, Hizballah, waged a proxy war
against Israel in 2006; charged down a collision course with the West over its
nuclear program and threatened to “wipe Israel off the map”.9 Encouraged by its successes,
Iran did not stop with Iraq, but continued to project its power throughout the
region—bringing its influence to bear on sectarian-tinged conflicts and civil
wars in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen. In each of these arenas,
governments and factions supported by Sunni Arab states and aligned with the
West found themselves mired in bloody conflicts with factions supported by
Iran. Saudi citizens and Islamic charities funneled money to Sunni insurgents
in Iraq and the Saudi Kingdom did little to stem the flow.10Attacks
and reprisals, which included the bombings of mosques and shrines, and the