Saudi-Iranian Detente in Sight

28.02.2017

Saudi Arabia and Iran are exhausted and finally realize that it is inevitable to reach some kind of a compromise. The rising of Russian role in the Middle East provides a suitable environment and real opportunities for reconciliation between Riyadh and Tehran. Russia is deeply interested in stability and security in the region.

Along its modern history, the relations between the two neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Iran, were unstable and troubled. The Saudi-Iranian relations are not just bilateral ones. As both are a pivotal regional powers, the interaction between them affects dramatically the stability of the whole Middle East region. Although tension and lack of mutual confidence was the main feature of Saudi-Iranian relations particularly after the Islamic revolution in Iran, the recent deterioration of relations between the two countries in last few years was unprecedented. It creates an intense polarization in the region, leads to proxy wars and inflames many crises that spread all over the region, from Syria and Lebanon in the north to Yemen southward passing through Iraq and Bahrain.

The Saudi-Iranian dispute is not only a religious one between Sunnis and Shiites. It is a strategic rivalry, a "cold war" between two fundamental regional powers having different plans and contradictory visions over the future of the Middle East and what it should be. The gap between them includes a wide range of issues, most notably from the Saudi standpoint, the Iranian intervention in the internal affairs of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries through Shiite minorities. That comes within an Iranian Persian Shiite strategy to undermine the other regional actors. In this context, Iran has supported Shiites uprising in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia in an attempt to destabilize the situations in two countries. It also supported Bashar Al-Assad, Houthi in Yemen, challenging directly Riyadh's interests.

On the other hand, Iran demanded respect of the social and political rights of Shiite minorities in GCC countries and to allow them, as they are citizens, to participate in the government institutions. Therefore, it considered the execution of Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr Baqir ElNimr a flagrant violation of Shiites' rights and a hostile action against Iran. Tehran also condemned Arab coalition strikes in Yemen led by Riyadh, and the Saudi declaration of Hezbollah, Iran's main ally, as terrorist organization.

Nevertheless reaching a compromise on these issues between the two countries is still possible. Riyadh and Tehran could overcome similar crisis in 1944, and in 1987. Moreover, they reached mutual understanding and had real cooperation in many occasions. There were number of summits between Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and King Faisal during 1950s and 1960s. King Faisal suggested the "Islamic Alliance" during his visit to Tehran in 1965 between the two countries and other conservative regimes in the region. The main aim of the suggested alliance was to face their common challenge presented by the revolutionary regimes led by Nasser's Egypt. Mohammad Khatami's visit to Saudi Arabia in 1997 lunched a new phase in the Saudi-Iranian relations by the signing of a security agreement in 2001.

A number of factors gives an opportunity to improve Saudi-Iranian relations. First, it seems that the two parties are exhausted and finally realized that it is inevitable to reach some kind of a compromise, and political settlement and negotiations is the only way for them. The balance of power is obvious and no one is able to win a wished zero sum game. The burden of their involvement in the conflicts becomes unaffordable and it is depleting their economic and military capabilities. According to Ahmad Asiri, advisor for Saudi Minister of Defense, each bomb used by the Arab coalition in Yemen costs Saudi Arabia 120 thousand GBP!!!. According to the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, Iranian support to Syria costs $6 billion annually. That means more than 35 billion in the last six years since the beginning of Syria crisis.

The increasing cost of conflicts comes in a time the economies of both countries are suffering growing difficulties. Sharp decline of oil prices, which represent more than 70% of Saudi Arabia revenue, has resulted to deficit in the kingdom's budget up to about $100 billion. As the military operation in Yemen increases with the duration and scope, more difficulties are challenging Saudi economy. On the other hand, despite the nuclear deal and easing of sanctions imposed long ago on Iran, the Iranian economy is still suffering from negative impacts of the sanctions. Iran has also not achieved what it expected in terms of attracting direct foreign investments and improving economic performance particularly in the field of oil production and exporting.

Second, the regional developments and the rapprochement between Tehran and a number of Riyadh's key allies, most notably, Pakistan and its unexpected refusal to participate in Yemen's war. The Saudi strategy that based on besieging Iran between Pakistan in the west and Saudi Arabia from the east is no more valid. The recent mutual understandings and cooperation between Turkey and Iran on Syria is also a very important development. Tension in the Saudi-Egyptian relations and the limited support Egypt showed regarding Saudi policies in general, and particularly in Yemen crisis, left Riyadh without a strong ally and may push it to reconsider its position toward Iran.

Third, for the first time since decades both Tehran and Riyadh are facing a common challenge, that is the US policies toward them. Trump rejected the nuclear deal with Iran considering it as a threat to American national security and the security of Israel. He promised to review the agreement, and to destroy Iran's nuclear ambitions "by any means", and to re-tighten economic sanctions against Tehran. In February, the US imposed sanctions targeting Iran's missile program in response to the last Iranian ballistic missiles tests.

It is true that Iran is in a difficult situation but Saudi Arabia is also facing problems with the United States since Obama's administration. Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally, strongly objected to the bill of Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi government, arguing it undermined national security. The tensions in Saudi-American relation are more likely to increase under Trump's administration. During his campaign, Donald Trump announced that US would stop importing oil from Saudi Arabia, unless the latter begins fighting ISIS truly and bear the cost of establishing safe zones in Syria.

Fourth, the rising of Russian role in the Middle East provides a suitable environment and real opportunities for such reconciliation between Riyadh and Tehran. Russia is deeply interested in stability and security in the region, and in calming tensions among different regional powers. Moscow adopts a vision based on establishing a regional security system in the Gulf region, including GCC countries along with Iraq and Iran, taking into account the interests of all countries in the region. Russia considers it the required formula to ensure the Gulf security and to guarantee peace and stability. As Iran is a strategic partner of Russia, and GCC countries are also important partners of Moscow, confidence-building measures between them are needed for the best of all. In this respect, Russia's vision differs completely from the other main players in the Middle East who prefer to "divide to rule".

There are some indicators that Riyadh and Tehran realized the regional developments and are moving slowly toward rapprochement. Among these indicators are the settlement of the Lebanese crisis by electing the new president, Michel Aoun, and forming the government in a context of compromise among Lebanese political powers and their regional allies. Also the visit paid by Kuwaiti Foreign Minister to Tehran in January with a message from Kuwaiti Emir to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani regarding the Gulf-Iranian relations. The visit was followed by the statement of the Deputy Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled Al-Jarallah's in February, in which he announced that GCC countries are ready to cooperate with Iran and negotiate over the different crises in the region. This reflects unprecedented flexibility of GCC countries toward Iran. Most notable is the warm welcome for Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, during his visit to Oman and Kuwait. The visit may be considered as the first step towards a detente in Iranian-GCC relations in general, including the Saudi-Iranian relation.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran should consider each other as regional powers, and show enough mildness to provide genuine reciprocal concessions to ease the tensions between them. That needs serious steps from Tehran to calm GCC worries, cessation of conflicts and integrating the armed opposition groups within the legal frameworks in Syria and Yemen. The success of Astana meetings over Syria will introduce a model that can be replicated in Yemen and other countries.

It is impossible to return back. If we think about tomorrow, we should feel the present to understand well new givens, and move forward to the future where there is a place for all as real partners.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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