Iran sent a belligerent warning last Friday: It seized 15 British sailors and marines in the Persian Gulf. The hostile move wasn't aimed only at London. It came just before anti-Iran moves by the UN Security Council and Sunni Arab nations. The real message? "Don't fence us in."
Tehran's radical Shiite regime faces an unusual partnership of foes opposed to its regional and nuclear ambitions. The United States and Saudi Arabia, either working separately or together, have rallied friends and allies to isolate Iran by adept diplomacy.
On Saturday, for example, the United Nations Security Council voted 15 to 0 to toughen sanctions on Iran for its failure to suspend suspect nuclear activities. The first sanctions were imposed in December. If Iran doesn't suspend uranium enrichment within two months, the UN may apply further pressure, or at least nod to efforts by some nations to divest from Iran.
And this Wednesday, the 22-state Arab League will gather in a rather public display of unity against Iran, hosted by Saudi Arabia's ruler, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. He has led the diplomatic offensive to roll back Iranian influence among Lebanese, Palestinians, and Shiite Iraqis.
From a larger perspective, the Saudis are trying to curb the influence of radical, violent Islam – a move that should win the Saudi regime more support from Muslims around the world who see it as caretaker of major holy Islamic sites.
The king, worried about Iran's ties to the radical Palestinian group Hamas, was also able to broker a deal this month between Hamas and the nationalist Fatah party to help form a new Palestinian unity government. He also may be helping to suppress Iran-backed Hizbullah forces in Lebanon. And there are reports of recent meetings between Saudi and Israeli officials.
Saudi Arabia is beefing up its Navy with US aid and supporting other Gulf states in building oil pipelines that would bypass the Gulf's Strait of Hormuz, thus weakening Iran's ability to threaten oil exports.
Confronting Iran directly, however, is not Saudi style. Its military is weak compared with Iran's. That's why the capture of British forces may be a signal from Iran's clerics – or maybe just a faction – that retaliation is a strong option. (See story)
The Saudis are also expected to use this Arab summit to reassert their 2002 peace offer to Israel. If Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gets her way (she's on her fourth Middle East trip in four months), the Saudis might engage more directly with Israel. Meanwhile, the US must continue to engage with elements of the new Hamas-led government, such as the non-Hamas foreign minister and finance minister.
The US and Saudi Arabia do have differences over how to isolate Iran, such as in bolstering Hamas. But both have an interest in weakening Iran's influence in Iraq and in ending its nuclear ambitions. In fact, Saturday's UN resolution goes beyond the nuclear issue to freeze the assets of commanders in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and its military unit, the Quds Force, which has ties to militant groups in Iraq and Lebanon.
A bolder Saudi Arabia and a more diplomatic US could make a good team in curbing radical Islamists in the Middle East.