Iranian plot is a sideshow in a long-running Gulf rivalry
The head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, was careful to say that the alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in the US read like a storyline from a "Hollywood script". In some ways it tests credulity even beyond Hollywood's wildest imaginings.
The idea of Iran's Quds Force, the special operations arm of the Revolutionary Guards, teaming up with a Mexican drug gang is a double-baddy line out of a straight-to-DVD production. With the plotters discussing their plans on mobile phones and transferring money to a US bank account, it almost seems as if they wanted to get the attention of the FBI.
The blunders of spy agencies, not least the CIA, have filled volumes over the years so nothing can be excluded. Suffice it to say that the consensus among experts is that the plot does not carry the fingerprints of an action by a serious intelligence service such as Iran has developed.
But that does not rule out a rogue operation. Nor does it exclude the possibility that the plot was a provocation by Iranian hardliners to thwart any possibility of a deal to open dialogue with the United States. In that case, it seems to have been successful, without a single bomb going off.
What is certain is that Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a long-term rivalry for primacy in the Gulf region, the oil market and also in the religious sphere, as the champions respectively of Shia and Sunni Islam. This rivalry has become more acute since the Arab revolts erupted at the start of the year.
The two countries are well matched: Iran has the geopolitical advantage, controlling the Strait of Hormuz, which is vital for the passage of oil tankers, and the benefits of being the inheritor of a once great empire. But it has declined in wealth since the 1979 revolution, when it produced more than six million barrels per day of oil. Today that figure struggles to reach four million, thanks largely to sanctions enforced by the US, ally of Saudi Arabia.
As for the Saudis, their dominance of the oil market is unchallenged. Iran's strategic goal is to disrupt the alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Would assassinating the Saudi ambassador on US soil achieve that goal? It would seem more likely to cement that relationship, at a time when political relations are fraying thanks to Washington's decision to veto a Palestinian state and the broken promises of the Obama administration.
Iran's interest in recent years has been to take a softly-softly approach, as the tide of events was flowing its way. Thanks to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, a country that used to be ruled by the Sunni Muslim minority, Baghdad is now under increasing Iranian influence, thanks to the voting weight of Shiites. Saudi Arabia shows its lack of trust in the post-Saddam government by refusing to name an ambassador to Baghdad.
Iran is quietly increasing its influence in Afghanistan, in preparation for the US withdrawal. Last year the US was shocked to learn that Iran was paying for the running of President Hamid Karzai's office, with bags of euros handed over once or twice a year. Nothing highlighted more clearly a simple fact: America's interests in Afghanistan come and go, but Iran, as a neighbour, has permanent interests that it will always pursue.
Since the outbreak of the Arab revolts, the fight came into the open, most clearly with the unrest in Bahrain. The government and its Saudi allies denounced the protests as an Iranian-backed attempt by the Shia majority to turn Bahrain into Tehran's beachhead on the western shore of the Gulf.
The suggestion that the protesters were foot soldiers of an Iranian-backed coup has not stood up to investigation. But there is no doubting the anxiety prompted in Saudi Arabia by the prospect of its regional allies being swept away.
The fall of the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February removed a formidable barrier to Iranian influence. In Lebanon, Iran's proxy force, the Hizbollah militia-cum-party, achieved its long-sought goal of dominating the Lebanese government, and was finally able to appoint one of its supporters as prime minister in June.
But Iran has taken some blows too. The popular revolt against the rule of the Assad family in Syria threatens to deprive Iran of a key ally in the heart of the Arab world. The geopolitical stakes were made clear when Saudi Arabia became the first Arab country to withdraw its ambassador.
On a broader front, Iran has lost prestige throughout the region: first due to its crushing of protests at the fraudulent 2009 result that secured re-election for president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and second thanks to its eclipse by Turkey as the most influential neighbour of the Arab states.
The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, have been received rapturously in Egypt and Libya. But, as Tariq Alhomayed, the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al Awsat, has pointed out, when Mr Ahmadinejad flew home from New York last month, he was not welcome in any of the countries of the Arab revolution. He stopped over in Mauritania and Sudan.
The contest for dominance between Iran and Saudi Arabia will continue, but the real issue is whether Iran becomes a nuclear state capable of creating an atom bomb. That would change the balance of power, and give Saudi Arabia little choice but to follow suit.
Before the collapse of Syria into near civil war, Iran was betting that its alliance with Damascus gave it a trump card to deter any Israeli or US bombing raid on its nuclear facilities.
Thanks to its central position, with borders on Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Iraq, Syria can cause trouble to US allies. It is the supply line for Hizbollah, the increasingly well-armed militia which, if a new war broke out, could inflict serious damage to Israeli population centres. Allied to Syria, Iran has a long reach. Without an alliance with Syria, Iran is isolated and easier prey.
So the real blockbuster these days is not the Iran-Mexico connection, but the continuing battle in Syria that will define the regional balance of power.
Updated: October 13, 2011 04:00 AM