Theoverthrow of Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein in April 2003 paved the way for Iran topursue its ambitions for dominance across the region. Within a month of theAmericans’ 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was reported that Iranian agents hadcrossed into Iraq, had based themselves in the Shi’i holy cities, and had begunpromoting Shi’i clerics friendly to Iran.
1Intelligence poured in that Iranian-backed Lebanese Hizballah advisors werecoordinating multiple militia groups in Iraq, and facilitating the flow ofweapons to the insurgency.2 Indeed, the removal of Saddamfrom power, constituted an unprecedented strategic opening for Iran to gaininfluence in a major oil-producing Gulf Arab state and the Saudis looked onwith alarm as Iran began capitalizing on the opportunity. At the same time, the collapse of the Ba’athist regime in Iraq breathed newlife into the majority Shi’i population, which now sought to translate itsrelative weight in the population into political power. The January 2005parliamentary elections marked the passage of political hegemony in Iraq fromthe Sunni minority to the Shi’i majority.The National Unity Governmentestablished in Baghdad in mid-2006, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Malikireflected Shi’i dominance in Iraqi politics, and most of the members of hisgovernment developed friendly working relations with Iran. Tensions in SunniArab states mounted as the Iranian Defense Minister signed an agreement withhis Iraqi counterpart to provide military training for and defense cooperationwith the new Iraqi army.3For the first time in modernhistory the Shi’a ruled an Arab country.
For Iran, this was a goldenopportunity. For Saudi Arabia, it was a monumental disaster. The Saudigovernment viewed the newly formed Shi’i government in Iraq as an agent ofIran. From their vantage point, Iran’s interference in Iraq was aimed atassuming a regional leadership role and pursuing its long-held aspiration to bethe hegemonic power in the Persian Gulf to the detriment of Saudi Arabia.Therefore, the Saudis and their Arab allies did not discourage their citizens frominterpreting the war through the sectarian lens, because as long as it wasviewed that way—the Saudis hoped—they would gain popular support for a foreignpolicy geared toward countering Iran’s influence in the region.4 Jordan’s King ‘Abdullah shared this approach. In an interview hegave 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 Islamicworld.5He conceived of the “Shi’i crescent”, as a contiguous swatchof land in which the region’s Shi’a dwelt, stretching from Iran, through thePersian Gulf – including Iraq (where Shi’a made up about 60 percent of thepopulation), 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 areShi’a.
The concept, and the deep-seated fears that this represented, spreadthroughout the Sunni Arab world like wildfire. Numerous articles bearing titleslike, “The Shi’i Wave”, “The Shi’i Revival”, and “The Shi’i Era” were publishedin 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 whichthese states evaluated every development in the region.The overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the revival of theIraqi Shi’a planted hope in the hearts of the Shi’i communities in GCCcountries. 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 ofthe Shi’a in Saudi Arabia saying, “We are pursuing contacts with officials inour country to remedy the sectarian discrimination which Shiites citizens siccomplain of”.6Fromthe perspective of the Wahhabi clerical establishment, empowering the Shi’a wastantamount to aiding the archenemies of Islam. Wahhabi clerics from both insideand 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 upthis way: “Everybody believes that Shiite Muslims are loyal to Iran more thanto their own countries, but you don’t say it”. He continued, “I’d say, 90% ofthe people in Saudi Arabia don’t trust the Shiites”.
8What started out in 2003 as a renewed period of tension between SaudiArabia and Iran stemming from the crisis in Iraq, grew into a period of openhostility between 2005 and 2006 as Iran’s interference in Arab states sowedinstability across the whole region. Iran deepened its economic, military andpolitical penetration of Iraq; through its proxy, Hizballah, waged a proxy waragainst Israel in 2006; charged down a collision course with the West over itsnuclear 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 theregion—bringing its influence to bear on sectarian-tinged conflicts and civilwars in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen. In each of these arenas,governments and factions supported by Sunni Arab states and aligned with theWest found themselves mired in bloody conflicts with factions supported byIran.
Saudi citizens and Islamic charities funneled money to Sunni insurgentsin Iraq and the Saudi Kingdom did little to stem the flow.10Attacksand reprisals, which included the bombings of mosques and shrines, and the