The Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict has been the top regional conflict for a decade. This conflict has become a banner of the region’s hot zones, which are aflame, by proxy, from Iraq in the north to Yemen in the south, Bahrain in the east, and Lebanon in the west.
The causes for the internal conflicts in each country are many, but all are being “regulated” by a single shadow: the conflicting interests of Tehran and Riyadh. Three years after the Arab Spring started, the uprisings have failed to improve the situation, despite the flurry of dreams initially. The Saudi-Iranian, or Sunni-Shiite, conflict became the principal determinant of the region’s conflicts.
Currently, the regional conflict is taking precedence over local duels: Iraq’s parliamentary elections, the Lebanese presidential election, the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and Syria, which is the most prominent setting of the Saudi-Iranian conflict. Accordingly, Saudi-Iranian relations embody the regional power balance. The Saudi-Iranian conflict seems like an indicator of what’s happening in the local conflicts. As the conflict between Riyadh and Tehran intensifies, both sides have an interest in mitigating its severity; the political solution in Syria is the key to major regional settlements.
Iran in Saudi Arabia’s eyes
Riyadh believes that the US-Iranian agreement on the nuclear issue would pave the way for the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran and untying its hands in the region’s conflicts. That would also mean changing the power balance within Iran to the benefit of the moderates, Hashemi Rafsanjani and President Hassan Rouhani. Progress in US-Iranian negotiations would essentially mean a retreat for the Iranian security establishment, namely the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, in managing regional issues, and a success for Rouhani, and Rafsanjani behind him.
Riyadh doesn’t believe there’s a fundamental problem with a moderate Iran, especially since Saudi Arabia concluded major security agreements with Iran during Rafsanjani’s era and political understandings during President [Mohammad] Khatami’s era. It is true that the regional power balance at the time was different, but Rafsanjani and Khatami were acceptable Saudi partners.
Things changed with former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The latter is no longer in power and it is not in Iran’s interest to strengthen his current and harm Iran’s improving image in the world after Ahmadinejad's departure. Although progress in US-Iran negotiations undermines Saudi interests, that progress also strengthens the moderate side within the Iranian state, which would be good for Riyadh.
A careful look at things leads one to conclude that progress in US-Iran negotiations presents Saudi Arabia with an opportunity. Iran would need some time and a lot of success in the negotiations with the United States before reaping the fruits of lifting the sanctions, and even then Iranian attention would be focused on how to form new power balances inside the Iranian state and in the state’s decision-making process for regional policy.
So from the Iranian perspective, it would be better to have a regional calming with Saudi Arabia to counter the negative effects of economic sanctions and ease the tension caused by the necessary “rounding of the corners” among Iranian institutions. A truce with Saudi Arabia would push US-Iranian relations to the forefront, especially as Obama wants to take further steps toward Iran and he needs regional support to proceed in his Middle East policy.
Saudi Arabia in Iranian eyes
Saudi Arabia is also facing internal shifts that are no less serious than Iran’s. Saudi Arabia’s shifts may in fact be the most serious since the kingdom was founded in 1932. Parallel with internal transformations, threats caused by changing international and regional frameworks are appearing. Thus, Saudi Arabia needs to reconcile or calm things down with its regional rival until it can put its house in order.
King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz issued a royal decree appointing Muqrin bin Abdulaziz as second in line to Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz without referring to the relevant institutions to nominate the crown prince. It was a decisive step to pre-empt a potential succession conflict between Bandar bin Sultan, Mutib bin Abdullah and Mohammed bin Nayef. For its part, the rising influence of the Wahhabi religious establishment is undermining the capabilities of Saudi regional politics with Iran. Therefore the Saudi royal family will seek to balance the aspirations of young Saudis, who are open to social media and want more civil liberties, and the religious establishment, which is preventing Saudi Arabia from improving its image in the region.
At the international level, there are serious challenges. In the United States, Riyadh has always been the ally of the Republicans, not the Democrats. Obama’s determination to diversify America’s Middle East relations has clearly bothered Saudi Arabia, and thus Riyadh will use its lobby in America and Congress to undermine Obama’s Middle East steps and hope that he will not have enough time to achieve his regional objectives.
In parallel with the internal tasks and the international effort, Saudi Arabia faces a variety of regional challenges other than Iran, such as Riyadh’s desire to keep the GCC’s [Gulf Cooperation Council] image and its conflict with Qatar in its proper frame. Saudi Arabia’s regional problems include its attempts to curtail the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the region, the difficulties faced by its regional alliances in Iraq and Lebanon, and the loss of control over jihadist groups fighting the regime in Syria. These diverse problems should make Saudi Arabia work to calm things down with Iran.
A necessary calm in the foreseeable future
No one has believed that the raging sectarian animosity between the parties to the conflict could suddenly turn to love and harmony. But because both sides need to calm things down for different reasons, the option of calming things down will remain on the table.
In this context, the Syrian crisis seems the key to a Saudi-Iranian calming because the weight of Syria’s geography in the Levant and the Middle East has historically determined, to a large extent, the power balance in the region. The Syrian conflict has sapped the capabilities of the two sides. The way events are going, it would be difficult to see one side coming out as a political winner for obvious reasons.
The Syrian crisis has worsened the sectarian confrontation in Syria and around it. So trying to reach a compromise solution could stop the bloodshed in Syria, preserve what remains of the capabilities of the Syrian state, and pave the way for a larger regional calming between the poles of regional conflict in Riyadh and Tehran.
Some parties, both in Iran and Saudi Arabia and in the opposing fronts in the region, would lose from such a truce. And some political currents, which are benefiting from the conflict, on both sides would see their roles decline. In contrast, Iran and Saudi Arabia, along with the people of the region, would gain from a regional truce, which would reflect positively on the areas of conflict.
Politics has always been and will remain the art of the possible. State interests have never been determined by ideology. Saudi and Iranian policymakers have probably heard of Churchill’s statement: “We have no lasting friends, no lasting enemies, only lasting interests.” We can confidently say that the Saudi-Iranian confrontation is headed for calm on the regional fronts in the foreseeable future, no matter how bleak the picture looks now.
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