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Is Iran driving new Saudi diplomacy?

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Saudi Arabia is playing a more assertive diplomatic role in Lebanon, attempting to bridge rising tension between Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites while curbing Iran's influence in the tiny Mediterranean country, analysts say.

Wary of its own restless Shiite population, Riyadh is deeply concerned at what it sees as a determined drive by Shiite Iran to expand its influence into the mainly Sunni Middle East.

"The Saudis are fighting Iran in Lebanon now because if they don't, they will be fighting them in their own land," says Sarkis Naoum, a Lebanese political commentator.

The stepped-up diplomacy by the Saudis over the past six months led to an unprecedented meeting in Riyadh on Dec. 26 between Saudi King Abdullah and two senior officials of Lebanon's Iran-backed Hizbullah.

Just six months ago an encounter between a Saudi monarch and the Shiite militants would have been almost unthinkable. When Hizbullah fighters kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in July, triggering a month-long war with Israel, the Saudis delivered an unusually frank statement, blaming Hizbullah and Iran for "uncalculated adventures."

Hizbullah's stubborn resistance against Israeli however, won it many admirers across the Arab world, making the Saudi leadership look out of step. But Hizbullah's regional popularity has dropped since it switched its attention from confronting Israel to seeking to bring down the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, which is backed by the US and Saudi Arabia.

Many Sunnis who cheered on Hizbullah last summer now regard it as an agent of "Persian" Iran.

"Hizbullah knows that when it comes to Israel and the US – the common enemies – there is common ground between Sunni Salafis and Shiites. But when it comes to domestic politics and political power in these countries, there's much more fear and wariness by Sunnis," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut.

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