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Iran, Saudi Arabia fight proxy conflict in Syria

While there is much talk of shared values and Islamic unity between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two countries are engaged in a bitter rivalry to expand their influence in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two rivals over the leadership role in the Islamic world, were eager to project harmony - at least when it came to outside appearances - at this week's summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) held in Mecca, the holy city of Islam.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad got a seat right next to the host, King Abdulla of Saudi Arabia. In his speech, Ahmadinejad stressed that the shared belief in one religion, a shared prophet and one holy text outweighed the countries' differences with each other.

Diplomatic defeat for Tehran

Islamic countries' leaders pose for official photos (Photo:AP/dapd)

At the OIC summit, the leaders tried to stress their cooperation

But neither the seating arrangement nor the amicable speeches nor the heated debates behind closed doors could influence the outcome of the summit: the suspension of Syria from the organization - and the diplomatic defeat it represented for Iran, which is Damascus' closest ally in the region.

Ahead of the summit, Hermidas Bawand, professor for international relations at Tehran University, warned on a reformer website that "we will be made to look like a fool."

Ahmadinejad himself had in fact not expected to be able to prevent the anti-Syrian resolution.

"My voice was the only vote against it, and it had to be raised at the conference," he said after returning to Iran. His failure to push Tehran's point at the Mecca summit was also because the Saudis are well aware that he's a politician on his way out.

Ahmadinejad's term is up next spring, and he has very little to say on crucial matters of the Islamic republic - like the country's nuclear ambitions or Tehran's ties with Damascus. Saudi Arabia knows that religious leader Ali Khamenei is setting the agenda in Iran. And that he's putting his country on a path of confrontation.

Islamic rivals

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Photo:Vahid Salemi/AP/dapd)

Saudi Arabia doesn't see Ahmadinejad as the one in charge

The old rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia as to who is leading the Islamic world is also fought on Syrian soil. The Saudi king described himself as "the servant of the holy shrines in Mecca and Medina" while Khamenei claims to be "the leader of the Islamic revolution."

The two countries also stand for the schism of the Islamic world: Saudi Arabia sees itself at the helm of the Sunnis, while Iran is leading the Shias. The conflict in Syria is increasingly fought along that sectarian divide with the Assad clan being Alawi, a denomination close to the Shias and therefore a natural ally to Tehran.

The unofficial proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia moved center stage early in August when 48 Iranians were kidnapped in Damascus. Quickly, the Iranian Foreign Ministry said that the men were religious pilgrims. Hours later, a pro-Saudi Sunni rebel group in Damascus claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. A video of the Iranians was then shown on the Saudi-financed television station Al-Arabiya. In the video, the rebel spokesman says the kidnapped were in fact not pilgrims but members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

US worries about role of Iran

Syrian anti-regime protesters Photo:Shaam News Network/AP/dapd)

Iran wants to prevent the Assad regime from collapsing

The Revolutionary Guards do not dispute their activities in Syria. The country was, they said, a bastion of resistance against Israel, that's why Iran was supporting Syria, General Ismail Ghaani, vice president of the guards' Quds brigades, explained on an Iranian website. "If it wasn't for us, there'd be even more people dying." That quote though was later taken off the website.

Military and intelligence officials in the United States said they believe Iran is trying to train militias to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. At least some of the kidnapped pilgrims were members of the Republican Guards, an elite division specializing in exactly such tasks, says Washington. US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the White House was very concerned about the development and that Iran should stay out of the conflict. At the same time, Panetta suggested that the US would step up its support for the Syrian opposition.

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