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Saudi Domestic Policy Affected by Fears Over Iranian Ascendance

But in addition to exposing domestic human rights abuses in the Saudi Kingdom, the report also serves as another example of the mutually escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although Saudi prosecutions of members of the country’s Shiite minority are often questionable, Iran is subject to similar accusations about its treatment of its Sunni minority. And this situation has permitted both countries’ leaders to inflame sectarian passions within their own populations and within the corresponding minority in the other nation. 

As well as contributing to instability across the region, this seems to encourage domestic crackdowns, since Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minorities are viewed as potential affiliates of Tehran and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has a notable role in various foreign conflicts. At the beginning of this year, Saudi Arabia executed a Shiite dissident cleric named Nimr al-Nimr. While the Saudis claimed that he had been instigating violence, the Iranians insisted that the incident was purely an attack on Shiism. Whatever the case, the Iranian response led directly to the Saudi embassy and consulate being burned, and then to the severance of diplomatic relations between the two regional rivals. 

Various subsequent Iranian activities seem to have inflamed the Saudi paranoia about Iranian influence, spying, and imperialism. Prominent among these activities is the IRGC’s ongoing participation in the Syrian and Yemeni Civil Wars. The latter conflict has effectively led to Iranian proxy forces taking positions close to the border with Saudi Arabia, from which they have fired Iranian-made missiles into Saudi territory. 

But the fear of Iran’s actual domestic influence in Saudi Arabia may be uniquely bolstered in the wake of reports of likely Iranian hacking. These reports were detailed in an article by McClatchy, which noted that a number of computers in two Saudi government agencies had been effectively rendered useless in attacks that began on November 17. The attacks bear signatures that are similar to those of a series of 2012 attacks known to have originated in Iran, and security experts rejected the possibility of the more recent incidents being false flag operations. 

Incidents like these can be expected to amplify the anxiety that Saudi Arabia and its regional allies are feeling in the wake of the nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers including the United States. Critics of that deal, who see it as being inadequate to constrain Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon, have speculated that it could lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Others have simply anticipated a more traditional arms race as the nuclear deal opens up Iran to certain arms deals, including the recently completed purchase of the advanced S-300 missile defense system from Russia. 

Still others have expressed concern that Iran has the potential to threaten its adversaries with other weapons of mass destruction that are not mentioned by the nuclear deal. On Tuesday, The Tower pointed to reports claiming that Iran has developed the capability to produce chemical and biological weapons. The article went on to recommend that the US and its allies apply sanctions to these fields of activity, even as sanctions remain suspended on Iran’s nuclear program. 

Such reports may further stoke Saudi anxieties. But if the incoming American presidential administration takes the warnings seriously, it may have the opposite effect, convincing the Saudis that they can rely on American leadership to constrain the growth of Iranian power and influence. And indeed, the latter outcome appears likely, as President-elect Donald Trump has already expressed interest in expanding non-nuclear sanctions on Iran, even before the emergence of the reports regarding possible chemical weapons.  

There are also various other ways in which the Trump administration may counteract the effects of the nuclear agreement or otherwise strengthen Iran policy, relative to the Obama administration. The Daily Beast reported on Tuesday that Trump was tentatively expected to make public three sets of documents related to the nuclear deal, thereby making it more transparent. Insofar as one of these sets of documents details exemptions to the deal’s restrictions and another describes assessments of Iran’s nuclear development, their publication may not only help the American public to clarify their opinions of the agreement, but may also help the Saudis and others to assess the specific risk that Iran poses in some areas.