The testimony presented by Iraqi commander Gen. David Petraeus and US ambassador Ryan Crocker to a US Senate Committee Tuesday, April 8, all pointed in one direction.
Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman put his finger on it when he asked: “Are Iranians still training and equipping extremists who are going back into Iraq and killing American soldiers?”
Petraeus answered in the affirmative. He explained that only Special Groups (Iranian-directed Shiite militias in Iraq) had the capabilities for targeting American forces with sophisticated rockets and EFPs (the Iranian-made extra-powerful roadside bombs known as explosively formed projectiles).
Lieberman pressed on: “Is it fair to say that Iran was responsible for killing thousands… or rather hundreds of American soldiers?” in Iraq.
The general replied: “I do believe that is correct.”
Ambassador Crocker rounded off the picture with repeated warnings of Tehran’s “malign influence” in Iraq and its pursuit of a “Lebanonizaton strategy” for molding Shiite elements into a proxy force on the same lines as the Hizballah, which has grown powerful enough to hold central government in Beirut to siege.
In Tehran meanwhile, Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad strutted his triumphal message on the occasion of Iran’s National Nuclear Technology Day (See HOT POINTS of April 8).
After insinuating that the 9/11 atrocities against the US were the product of American anti-Islam conspiracy theories rather than an Al Qaeda attack, he declared that America is in the process of disintegration – militarily, politically and financially, while Iran’s nuclear program had passed the point of no-return. Therefore, he boasted, Iran is the first power to be capable of changing the world order laid down after World War Two.
Strutting as a big world power
He was telling the world that the Islamic Republic must now be accepted as the region’s one and only power. Israel was cursorily dismissed as “a gang of international pirates in possession of storehouses packed with nuclear weapons.”
Tehran’s next move proved that it is not content with its “malign influence” in Iraq, with controlling Syria, bullying Lebanon, planting destabilizing elements in the Gulf and establishing a forward base in Palestinian territory. The Shiite clerics were after bigger game, Saudi Arabia.
Damascus refrained from publishing the report of the Syrian intelligence inquiry into the death of Hizballah’s security chief Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus on Feb. 15, although it was promised for last Sunday. Instead, Tehran jumped the gun by releasing purported extracts from that report, with the clear agenda of dipping a meddling finger in the court politics of Riyadh.
These extracts aimed at implicating Saudi intelligence as responsible for the deed in collusion with the Israeli Mossad. They claimed that a group of senior Saudi intelligence plotters, led by Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was on hand to execute the plot and it exited Damascus as soon as it was done.
Tehran followed this up by a statement by its Fars agency claiming that Syria had arrested “a high-ranking defense official in the Saudi embassy in Damascus in connection with the Mughniyeh slaying. The agency added that he was connected to a Syrian woman on whose name the two explosives-laden cars used to kill the Hizballah chief were registered.
Prince Bandar still holds the formal title of Saudi national security adviser, although he has been excluded from the King Abdullah’s inner circle for some months. Other Arab intelligence agencies, including Palestinians, were named as co-conspirators with Israel through the Saudis.
A weak Saudi moment “between kings”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iranian and Gulf sources note that, just as the Ahmadinejad speech underlined Tehran’s claim to regional pre-eminence, its action in leaking alleged sections of its Syrian ally’s Mughniyeh report told Riyadh that Iran felt strong enough to meddle in Saudi Arabia’s internal affairs.
The manipulators of Tehran believe they can capitalize on a weak moment in Saudi history to demonstrate their superiority and win pickings in a key center of American Middle East influence.
1. Saudi Arabia is on the brink of a crisis which is best defined as “between kings,” and for the first time in his brief history, lacks a clear line of succession.
Aged 85, King Abdullah is described by informed political circles in the Gulf to be sinking, prey to long lapses into semi-consciousness. The health of his successor, Crown Prince Sultan, another octogenarian, is poor after a long struggle with cancer.
The many thousands of royal princes are locked in a power struggle to determine the next man on the Saudi throne. The Sudairi branch, to which Bandar and his father Crown Prince Sultan belong, is the most aggressive, demanding that both Abdullah and Sultan be forced to abdicate immediately and make way for one of their member.
Interior minister Prince Nayef is their front-runner.
The Sudairis are hawks on national security, traditionally in control of defense, and closest of all the royal branches to Washington. Tehran therefore acted to upset their apple-cart by discrediting one of their most prominent members. But the Iranians are still wary of openly antagonizing these powerful princes in case they do win the throne; so they picked on Prince Bandar, who is out of favor with the reigning monarch and his clique, by the devious stratagem of implicating him in a murder.
2. Tehran has another motive for wanting Bandar out of the way.
In 2006, this accomplished diplomat was the live wire in a mediation maneuver which aimed at bringing Washington, Riyadh and Tehran together for a breakthrough understanding on the burning questions of Iran’s nuclear program, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians.
Setting dovish princes against the hawks
To this day, Iran’s rulers suspect Bandar, a former Saudi ambassador in Washington, of secretly working against them in this effort and have marked him out for payback.
They also have an eye to the future. Since the king dropped Bandar, the non-Sudairi Prince Muqrin, director of the General Intelligence Service, is the address in Riyadh for important matters. Tehran finds him easy to work with and has singled him out as its man in the Saudi capital. This means that if a non-Sudairi candidate is crowned king, Muqrin will be expected to lobby the future monarch to accommodate Tehran.
3. Iran’s Riyadh watchers have concluded that the rising generation of Saudi princes (40-50 years old) is far less sensitive to Iran’s nuclear threat to the kingdom than the incumbent rulers. Many of these “youngsters” would opt for a neutral stance in the US-Israel quarrel with Iran over its nuclear aspirations, and move away from the classical Saudi position, endorsed by the US, which urges the development of a domestic nuclear weapons program and/or a foreign nuclear umbrella solicited from Pakistan or perhaps India.
It is this generation of princes, more dovish than the Sudairis, which Tehran would like to cultivate.
4. Another princely faction of interest to Tehran opposes the extreme anti-Syrian policies of King Abdullah – or rather his close advisers, which they see as hindering an understanding between Tehran, Damascus and Washington for a pax Irana in Lebanon.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf sources comment that if it had been suggested a year ago that Iran would have the temerity to meddle in internal Saudi politics, no one would have taken it seriously.
But in April 2008, having got away with roaring towards its goal of a nuclear bomb and making destructive inroads on Arab lands, the Islamic rulers of Tehran feel they are riding high. Impervious to the sanctions clamped down by the UN and the Untied States, they see no effective punishment awaiting them for punching America in the eye and taking liberties with its key ally in the region Saudi Arabia.