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The tangled web of Middle Eastern alliances

By Peter Coates - posted Monday, 18 December 2006

The US can leave Iraq when it wishes but regional powers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel will have to pick up the pieces.

A US centric explanation would suggest these powers only act because America exists, but shifting the focus to regional initiatives presents aspects less familiar to our US dominated media.

In summary it appears that Iran has launched a diplomatic offensive to paint itself as a force for peace in Iraq. Less known is Saudi Arabia’s campaign to limit Iranian influence in Iraq, and in the Middle East generally, through forming an anti-Iranian alliance.


Israel, meanwhile, is quietly co-operating, to some extent, with the Saudis to counter growing Iranian power. All this represents a new and complicated series of possible strategies, both overt and covert, for regional players.

Iran’s Shiite alliance

As a generalisation Iran is attempting to create a Shiite alliance for mutual defence and to spread the Shiite strand of Islam. Iran can already count on Hezbollah-dominated southern Lebanon as part of the alliance.

Iran's President Ahmadinejad clearly hopes to influence the future direction of Iraq through overt contact with Iraqi Shiite leaders and perhaps through covertly supporting the powerful Shiite militias in Iraq. Iran wishes to alter its image from a “rogue state” (that might be a target for US and Israeli airstrikes against its nuclear infrastructure) to being seen as a benign and conciliatory leader in the region.

In September 2006 Iraq’s leader Prime Minister Maliki (a Shiite but toeing the US line) made a short scheduled visit to Iran and spoke of non-interference in each others affairs.

However, Iraq now appears to be courting some Iranian involvement as reflected in discussions in late November 2006, in Iran, between Iraqi President Talabani (a Kurd) and Iranian President Ahmadinejad. Talabani was quoted on Iranian television as saying: "We are in dire need of Iran's help in establishing security and stability in Iraq."

President Ahmadinejad attempted to make the November 2006 meeting at least a three-way summit by also inviting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Syria did not respond to the invitation, however, and may be aiming to strengthen its position by sitting on the fence.


Syria perhaps rejected honorary membership of Iran’s Shiite alliance on sectarian grounds (Syria is majority Sunni) or it is possible Syria is being given incentives by Saudi Arabia and threats from Israel not to side too closely with Iran’s projects.

Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iranian alliance

Saudi Arabia has many concerns over the Iraq war. It fears an escalation from a militia and al-Qaida fuelled civil war to a conventional war in which Iran’s armed forces (powerful relative to Iraqi and Saudi forces) might intervene and prevail. The Saudis also fear Iran’s ability to incite violence within Saudi Arabia by influencing the kingdom’s Shiite minority.

Ultimately the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia may fear a Shiite alliance could strengthen Iran by allowing it to divert more resources away from conventional military security towards its nuclear program.

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About the Author

Peter Coates has been writing articles on military, security and international relations issues since 2006. In 2014 he completed a Master’s Degree in International Relations, with a high distinction average. His website is Submarine Matters.

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