Saudi Arabia-Iran: Chances for Historical Reconciliation

The entire course of post-revolutionary upheavals in the Middle East shows that it is hardly possible to break the vicious circle of violence and terror, fratricidal civil wars and destruction of statehood without removing the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran – two regional centers of influence.

Many Middle East experts are arriving at this conclusion, although politicians across the world still avoid doing so out of diplomatic tact.

The former foundations of the Arab world collapsed when the paradigm of international relations, which ensured a balance of relative stability under the bipolar system, including the more or less controlled behavior of “smaller states” (the allies and partners of great powers), became a thing of the past once and for all. New rules that would conform to the new world order have not taken shape. Regional state and other entities that had become economically stronger under conditions of globalization began to be more autonomous in their behavior and sometimes even acted against the interests of great powers. These trends were especially manifest in the Middle East – more often over the past few years – with the beginning of the destructive processes triggered by the Arab Spring.

The upsurge of protests, initially under democratic slogans, and the socio-political cataclysms that swept the entire region substantially changed the alignment of forces between leading regional players. The role of Egypt, which went through two revolutions in four years, grew weaker temporarily. Syria and Iraq are torn by bloody domestic religious and ethnic conflicts. Turkey, which claimed to have a universal model of “Islamic democracy,” ceased to be seen as an example to follow with the growth of the opposition and mounting problems with neighbors.

Arab states that were not affected directly by radical changes were compelled to urgently look for further domestic resources of survival and adjust their foreign policy strategies. As distinct from the monarchies in Jordan and Morocco, Saudi Arabia felt the most vulnerable. The rigid and archaic government system in the kingdom – the guardian of Moslem holy places – was burdened with the traditionally strong influence of Islam’s tough Wahhabis on all spheres of public life, and the increasing problems of succession.

Riyadh perceived the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt as the loss of a predictable ally and – even worse – as evidence of an unreliable US patronage.

Washington’s flirtation with the moderate Moslem Brotherhood, Wahhabi rivals in Islam’s interpretation, who came to power, made the Saudis even more wary. After the revolutionary wave swept Syria and Yemen, external threats seemed even more realistic. Saudi-Iranian relations were tense before the Arab Spring, but with the start of domestic conflicts in neighboring Arab states, Iran became the Saudis’ chief enemy and later developments took place under the sign of this confrontation.

Initially, Shia Iran managed to substantially strengthen its positions in Iraq (paradoxically, this was facilitated by the 2003 US invasion of Iraq that changed the denominational arrangement in the Shias’ favor), frustrate hopes for a quick overthrow of its close ally – the Bashar Assad regime in Syria – and receive support in Lebanon from the Shia Hezbollah movement that possessed a large military power. The Shia opposition to the Sunni ruling minority in Bahrain and the Houthis in Yemen stepped up their activities. The latter are believed to have been be a creature of Tehran, albeit with some exaggeration.

All these actions convinced Riyadh that Iran was out to surround Moslem shrines with a Shia belt and destabilize the Saudi monarchy with the assistance of the Shia minority in the east of the country.

The Saudis’ foreign policy was aimed at dislodging Syria from the chain of Iran’s influence and creating in Iraq a counterweight to Iran by consolidating friendly Sunni tribes and politicians in the ruling coalition. The Saudi funding of the Islamist segment of the Syrian and Iraqi opposition played the primary role in changing the character of domestic conflicts – the struggle for power switched to religious and ethnic grounds. The disastrous escalation of violence in Yemen also shows that the struggle for spheres of influence at the regional level is rooted not so much in the rivalry of world powers as in the historical enmity between Islam’s denominations. The hostile rhetoric of the two religious centers has acquired this character probably for the first time on the backdrop of the Yemeni crisis.

The difficulties of Saudi Arabia’s adaptation to the new external environment are further aggravated by the differing character of relations with its American ally. It became obvious that their interests are far from always identical and even diverge in some areas. The US rapprochement with Iran during the talks on the latter’s nuclear program, America striving to get rid of its oil dependence on the unpredictable Middle East and occupy leading positions on the market, President Barack Obama’s refusal to resort to direct armed interference in Syria on the model of Libya (contrary to the Saudis’ hopes) and criticism of the violent suppression of the opposition in Bahrain led to the accumulation of numerous irritants, even though the Americans tried to react calmly to signals of discontent from Riyadh. Finally, the Saudis resorted to radical protests that were called upon to blame the international community and the US Administration for the disastrous developments in the region. Prince Khalid bin Bandar, former head of the Saudi intelligence service, even declared that relations with the United States could be drastically revised. Washington was notified about the air strikes in Yemen only three hours prior to the bombings.

This suggests a number of questions. Hasn’t this confrontation gone too far? How can it be stopped? Can external actors, primarily the United States and Russia, ease these tensions? The US talks with Iran on finalizing the nuclear agreement go far beyond the issue of the nuclear non-proliferation.

The US Administration is elaborating new approaches toward the resolution of problems in the Middle East, which are expressed under “the strategy of offshore balancing.” As part of this strategy, having exited international isolation, Iran will behave more moderately and be prone to compromise on the security of Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Gulf. In turn, having received assurances of readiness to protect them against Iranian aggression, the Arabian monarchies will conduct a more responsible regional policy that will take into account the new realities.

As the two conflicting sides in the region deplete their resources and the international community feels tired and unable to break the vicious circle of violence, certain prerequisites appear for reaching a package of agreements on resolving conflicts in the Middle East. Iran is vitally interested in the lifting of economic and financial sanctions and is signaling its preparedness for negotiations. Saudi Arabia does not meet Iran halfway for the time being, although the overall balance of gains and losses is not generally in its favor. Much will depend on future developments in Syria and Yemen. These two bloody conflicts, which have triggered unprecedented humanitarian catastrophes, cannot continue forever.

Reconciliation may be facilitated by the existence of a common enemy – international terrorism. With the formation of the Islamic State (ISIS), it has received a spiritual halo and is appealing to the Moslem memories of the glorious times of the Arab Caliphate. Through its advisers and Shia self-defense fighters, Iran is de facto taking part in the armed actions against ISIS in Iraq and Syria without entering the US-established international coalition. Saudi Arabia has denounced ISIS as a terrorist force, and joined the coalition. The new wave of militant Islamism is boomeranging at its interests as well. The ideology of “caliphatism” has supporters in Saudi Arabia as well, and ISIS acts of terror have become more regular there recently. The armed struggle in Yemen conducted with Saudi participation under the slogan of defending “constitutional law” leads to the further consolidation of terrorist groups in southern Arabian Peninsula, in the direct vicinity of the Saudi borders.

This article was originally published in Russian on

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