In the Gulf, a cold war heats up over Iranian territorial ambitions

Elhanan Miller
The Times of Israel

Arab Gulf states sometimes seem as concerned by Iran’s land meddling as by its nuclear program.

Saudi foreign minister Saud Al-Faysal in Riyadh to discuss Gulf unity May 13 (photo credit: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

While all international eyes are focused on the new round of talks between the West and Iran surrounding its nuclear program, some Arab Gulf states seem no less preoccupied with Iran’s involvement in subversive acts on their soil.

Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Yemen are all voicing concern regarding Iranian involvement in local acts of violence. A tug of war between Iran and Saudi Arabia for political influence in Bahrain and Iran’s overt assertion of sovereignty over the disputed Island of Abu-Moussa threaten to turn a cold war hot.

Iran has just finished connecting the island of Abu-Moussa to a mobile telephone network, the Saudi-owned daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat reported Tuesday. Abu-Moussa is one of three Gulf Islands taken by Iran in 1971 when the British withdrew from them, but claimed by the United Arab Emirates. On April 11, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the Island with great fanfare, to the annoyance of Gulf Arabs.

But it is Iran’s alleged involvement in acts of violence and sabotage that is more worrying to neighboring Arab states than symbolic provocations.

”””It is sometimes difficult to discern the authentic fears of Gulf Arabs from anti-Iranian propaganda”””

Kuwaiti parliamentarians took turns lambasting Iran earlier this week following a court ruling which commuted the death sentence of four men accused of forming an Iranian espionage cell to life in prison.

“The ruling revealed the hostile intentions of Iran,” Kuwaiti MP Faysal Yahya told the national daily Al-Watan. “It stresses the real threat of security penetration by Iran in Kuwait and other Gulf states.”

Kuwaiti interior minister Riyad Adasani called for tighter domestic surveillance, stating that “we have special experience following the Iraqi invasion and Iraqi spies.”

Tensions between Iran and its Arab Gulf neighbors surfaced following a meeting of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in Riyadh on May 14 to discuss greater political unity. Shiite Iran fears that political unity would entail the annexation of Bahrain — with its majority Shiite population — to neighboring Saudi Arabia, Iran’s staunchly Sunni arch-enemy.

Iranians wave Bahraini flags as they chant slogans during a demonstration in Tehran May 18, 2012 (photo credit: AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

A crude plan to prevent such unity was apparently thwarted by Bahrain, which on Sunday sentenced six men to 15 years in prison for planning to blow up the King Fahd Causeway which connects Saudi Arabia with Bahrain. According to the Bahraini public prosecutor, the men were trained by Iran.

In Saudi Arabia, a terrorism trial is underway in which seven men — believed to be members of Al-Qaeda — are accused of collaborating with Iranian agents outside the Kingdom. The men are charged with preparing explosives and planning attacks on an Apache helicopter airbase in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi daily Okaz reported Tuesday. Operational cooperation between Shiite Iran and Sunni fundamentalist Al-Qaeda, if true, is highly unusual.

Iranian involvement has even reached the relatively remote country of Yemen, according to Yemeni foreign minister Abu-Bakr Qirbi. In an interview with A-Sharq Al-Awsat May 16, the minister accused Iran of sowing “civil strife” in the country, an allusion to Iranian funding of Shiite Houthi separatists in northern Yemen.

”””It is Iran’s alleged involvement in acts of violence and sabotage that are more worrying to neighboring Arab states than symbolic provocations”””

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish the authentic fears of Gulf Arabs from anti-Iranian propaganda. But if there was a temptation to dismiss their concerns as paranoid, on Monday the Washington Post revealed a detailed Iranian plot to assassinate foreign diplomats in “at least seven countries” over the course of 13 months. The intelligence revealed that the targeted diplomats included Saudis, Israelis and Americans.

Could the cold animosity between the Gulf Arabs and Iran erupt into armed confrontation? It is too soon to tell.

But this month, a large-scale military maneuver in Jordan dubbed “Eager Lion” was meant to simulate a ground invasion of Iran, some observers say. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were 7 of the 19 countries participating in the exercise.

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