Iranian influence in the region is growing and the trend is due to a number of developments. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese militant organization, have been operating beyond Iran’s border and inside other Arab states, namely Syria and Iraq. Iran was successful in establishing substantial influence within Lebanon and there is a strong presence of Hezbollah within Lebanon. The Iran-influenced government of Iraq consults with Iran on about every matter, even petty issues. A pro-Iranian regime, led by Bashar-al-Assad, is still holding onto power in war-torn Syria. Iran has been increasingly attaining control over the Shia (Shiite) community within Bahrain which has a Shia majority population under a Sunni monarch. Iran has helped the Houthis, an armed group in Yemen, successfully capture the Yemeni capital, Sana. Last but not least, the nuclear deal among the six nuclear powers and Iran was a landmark political, diplomatic and economic achievement for Iran, creating the possibility for strengthening Iran’s regional influence.
All these factors are making Saudi Arabia take unilateral steps for the first time, bringing a change in its long practiced policy of multilateral actions (along with western allies) against Iran.
Iran does not possess any real economic strength at the moment because of the effect of the decades-long economic sanctions imposed by the international community. Gulf policymakers, especially those in Saudi Arabia, fear that if an economically weak Iran has the ability to wreak havoc in the region, what would happen when it does acquire economic strength?
Moreover, once Iran starts to gain an economic advantage, it can push to consolidate and expand its already established influence in Lebanon. Iran certainly would not shy away from showering Hezbollah with financing in order to facilitate the expansion of Hezbollah’s activities beyond Lebanon and into the greater Middle East.
A strong Iranian economy can also encourage Iran’s political elites to back Shia communities within neighboring Sunni monarchies in order to make these countries less stable which is similar to what Iran has been doing in Bahrain.
An economically solvent Iran may not hesitate to facilitate daring sectarian moves across the region. It would not be surprising if Iran backs further militiamen engagement to take control of the capital of an independent state in the region, similar to what it did in Yemen through Houthi militants, who represent the voice of a very small portion of the Yemeni population.
Saudi Arabia now fears that the Iran nuclear deal might not block Iran’s path to the bomb. Rather, the deal may act as a cover to Iran’s effort to build nuclear weapons. The Iran nuclear deal has been interpreted by Saudi Arabia to be a window for Iran to develop its nascent nuclear-weapon program. Saudi Arabia believes that as the deal rewards Iran financially, it may make the Iranian regime capable of financing and arming militant groups like Hezbollah.
Thus, the post-sanction era seems prosperous for Iran and appears worrisome for its foes, especially Saudi Arabia.
For the last several years, Arabian Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, have been concerned over Iran’s likelihood of acquiring a nuclear weapon. The inking of the Iran nuclear deal has only helped to increase such fears, and Gulf states have been boosting their defence capabilities further as a hedge against Iran.
Because of growing Iranian influence in the region and in anticipation of Iran achieving a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia has become more cautious in its defence mechanisms. In this prevailing environment, there is every reason to believe that Saudi Arabia may, perhaps secretly, make its move towards developing own nuclear weapon capabilities.
Perhaps, this is the beginning of another nuke race.