The rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran following last week's tragedy in Mecca signals a dramatic shift in the balance of political forces in the Gulf. According to Western observers in Tehran, the break with the Saudis will weaken Iran's position in its conflict with the United States and Kuwait, but further radicalize Iran's foreign policy. And they see it as a disastrous blow to Iran's strategy of the past two years of improving relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in an effort to reduce Arab support for Iraq.
Rather than being a deliberate act by the Iranian government, the riot in Mecca may well have been provoked by ultra-radical Iranian fundamentalists opposed to the policy of rapprochement. Further, diplomats in Riyadh suggest, there are those within the ruling Saudi family who were also eager to break with Iran and thus decided on a strong response to the Iranian pilgrims' demonstration.
Only hours before the Mecca showdown, an Iranian diplomat told this reporter how happy his government was to have successfully sowed discord among Arab states in the southern Gulf. He contended that the re-registering of Kuwaiti tankers under the US flag had isolated Kuwait from neighboring Gulf states who, he said, reproached Kuwait for drawing both superpowers into Gulf waters. The diplomat pointed out that Saudi Arabia had refused to use its minesweepers in international Gulf waters to back up the US escort operation. He also claimed that Saudi Arabia was likely to remain neutral in case of an Iranian attack against Kuwait.
``All these Iranian dreams were shattered last Friday,'' says a European diplomat who travels frequently to the Gulf. Now that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has pledged to root out the Saudi dynasty and to put the holy cities of Mecca and Medina under international control, the diplomat says, the two governments will be irreconcilable for the foreseeable future.
On Iran's domestic scene, the rift with Riyadh is likely to strengthen the position of ultraradical members of parliament. This group has relentlessly criticized the policy of dialogue with Saudi Arabia advocated by Prime Minister Hossein Musavi and parliamentary Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The leader of this group is Musavi Khoeiniha, who in November 1979 masterminded the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran. Foreign diplomats in Tehran believe Mr. Khoeiniha will now be allowed to stir up networks of supporters he has patiently built throughout the Middle East, particularly those in Saudi Arabia's eastern provinces, which have a concentration of Shiite Muslims.
The influence of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri - heir apparent to Ayatollah Khomeini - is also expected to rise. Ayatollah Montazeri has been a fervent advocate for exporting the Iranian revolution to all Islamic countries without restriction.
Iran is unlikely to confront Saudi Arabia in open war, but will rely on supporters inside the kingdom to launch campaigns of sabotage against Saudi economic and military targets. Iran's allies in the Muslim world, especially in Lebanon, are also expected to undertake terrorist attacks against Saudi interests.
Serious difficulties arose between Saudi Arabia and Iran after the 1979 Iranian revolution. The Saudis supported Iran's imperial regime until the last moment. After the Shah's downfall, Tehran radio began vitriolic attacks against the Saudi regime, which it accused of being corrupt and pro-American.
At the end of 1980, Saudi Arabia decided to bankroll Iraq in its war with Iran. The shooting down of two Iranian F-4 fighter planes by Saudi F-15 interceptors (reportedly flown by US mercenaries) in June 1984 marked a turning point in the stormy relations between the two countries.
Military attach'es in Tehran say the Iranian leadership then decided to work out some arrangement with the Saudi ruling family. It initiated a policy of rapprochement that reached a high point with the May 1985 Tehran visit of the Saudi foreign minister.
In subsequent months, Saudi Arabia tried to distance itself from Iraq and got involved in the US Iran-contra affair. Western oil industry sources also contend that, during this period, Saudi Arabia provided Iran with oil byproducts after successful Iraqi air raids seriously reduced Iran's refining capability. The Saudis also supported Iran's position in strengthening oil prices at a meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries last year.
During last year's hajj pilgrimage, Saudi authorities arrested 100 Iranians allegedly trying to smuggle explosives into the kingdom. The two governments cooperated, and the pilgrims were returned to Tehran, where they were arrested. They included several activists close to Montazeri. Western intelligence sources say Iran's Information Ministry had tipped off Saudi authorities that some pilgrims would try to stir up trouble. Iranian officials denied this.
A source close to Prime Minister Musavi claims this year's Mecca demonstration was organized in cooperation with Saudi authorities in charge of the pilgrimage. He contends that an order to fire on the demonstrators came from the Saudi Ministry of Interior. Riyadh denies that police fired. Iran, this source says, was warned weeks in advance by Turkish intelligence sources that ``part of the Saudi ruling family was looking for an incident that would destroy the existing relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.''
Claude van England writes on Iran from his base in Brussels.