By MARGARET COKER And FARNAZ FASSIHI
Rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are raising concerns that a renewed proxy war between the two powers could break out in Iraq, where the expected withdrawal of at least some U.S. military troops at the end of the year is expected to leave a new vacuum of power.
One of the side effects of the Arab Spring uprisings has been an upending of the regional equilibrium between Saudi-backed and Iranian-backed governments and political actors. Riyadh blames Tehran for much of the political instability on its borders in Bahrain and Yemen, while Iranian officials have watched its popular support in the region falter amid support for Syria’s crackdown on anti-regime protesters there.
Iraq, a border state for both Saudi Arabia and Iran, is a likely new location for such a confrontation given the two powers’ recent history in supporting sectarian warfare in that country and their current drive to shore up their political and military might at a time when each feel vulnerable, say Iranian and Arab analysts.
The Obama administration has expressed its concerns about Iran’s attempts in recent months to expand its influence in Iraq and the broader Middle East.
“Iran is looking for an opportunity to use the cards it has lined up in the region—the Revolutionary Guards refer to it as their ‘grand bargaining strategy,'” said Mohsen Sazegara, a founder of the Revolutionary Guards who is now a vocal opponent of Iran’s regime.
Last week’s announcement that Iranian figures were accused of hiring a Mexican hitman to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington sent shock waves across the Arab world, where Sunni Arabs are already weary of Shiites Iran’s influence in places like Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
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