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Saudi-US-Israel axis out to tame Iran

Michael Jansen, Nov 26 2017, 23:46 IST

Saudi influence in West Asia and dwindling financial resources are being further depleted by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman's campaigns in Syria and Yemen and the crises he is stirring up with Qatar and Lebanon. Although he is meddling in these four countries, his target is Iran, which the Saudis blame for the strategic region's ills. The prince is being egged on by the Trump administration and hawks in Israel who claim that Iran is a threat to their interests.

Following the 1979 ouster of the Shah, Iran was ostracised by the West and regarded by the Arabs as a dangerous foe in West Asia. While their attitude has not changed in the intervening years, Iran's status has risen and Tehran has become a major actor on the regional stage.

Iran has emerged as a strong regional player largely through no machinations of its own. Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon prompted Iran's military to form the Shia Hizbollah resistance movement which ousted the Israeli army from Lebanon in 2000 and fought Israel to a draw in 2006. Following its 2003 occupation of Iraq, the US installed in Baghdad a Shia fundamentalist regime closely allied to Iran.

By supporting jihadi insurgents fighting for regime change in Syria, Saudi Arabia and its partners have drawn in Iran's military. Tehran's aim is to ensure the survival of Syria's government, a longstanding ally. Iran's ties to Baghdad and Damascus provide it with influence at the very heart of West Asia. On the global stage of the Muslim Umma, or community, marginalised and persecuted Shia minorities look to Iran for support against Sunni rulers, energised by Saudi Arabia.

Iran is no longer a global pariah. The replacement of the provocative hothead Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the presidency by moderate Hassan Rouhani has eased tensions with the West and - until the Saudis stepped up their anti-Iran campaign -reduced anti-Iranian provocations in West Asia. These were stepped up during the rise of the Saudi crown prince, particularly after the 2015 signing of the agreement for the dismantling of Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for lifting of sanctions.

Since that deal was reached after protracted negotiations with six major powers - the US, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany - Tehran interacted with their governments and secured a measure of "normalcy."

As a result of the easing of sanctions, China, Russia, France and Germany have pursued business contracts and investment with Iran which has benefitted by exporting its oil and regaining its market share. India, Japan, South Korea and Europe are buying Iranian crude and petrochemicals.

Iran's economy, shrunk by sanctions, grew by 6.4% in 2016 and is expected to expand by 4% this year. Although Iran is dependent on oil revenues and plagued by inflation and high unemployment, the World Bank expects the agricultural and industrial sectors to surge. The main risk for Iran's economy is uncertainty over the nuclear deal, to which Tehran has strictly adhered, while the US has obstructed sanctions relief and external commerce.

Caught in the middle

The aggressive posture toward Iran adopted by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Riyadh's chief ally, has prompted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to express concern over their escalation of tensions with Iran. Cash-strapped Cairo - which has received billions of dollars in financial aid from the two Gulf powers - does not want to be dragged into a military confrontation with Iran.

Sisi said Egypt is a guarantor of Gulf security but argued the region "has enough instability and challenges as it is" and does not need more. Egypt does not seek regime change in Syria or abide by the sectarian Sunni-Shia dimension of the rivalry for influence promoted by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

In contrast to Egypt's efforts to calm tensions, Israel seeks to exploit them. Its Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz has urged Sunni Arabs to step up pressure on Iran and Hizbollah to implement the UN resolution that ended Israel's 2006 incursion into Lebanon. The resolution called for Hizbollah to disarm and withdraw its forces from Lebanon's border with Israel. Disarming is not realistic at present as Hizbollah and Iran are, alongside Russia, fighting insurgents in Syria and cannot cease fire and pull out of that country until the regime is stabilised.

The Trump administration's clumsy efforts to undermine the nuclear agreement have already alienated Europe and Asia and strengthened the diplomatic position of Iran. Instead of confronting Iran, the US should build on shared interests, including eliminating Islamic State (IS), stabilising Syria and Lebanon, and ending the war in Yemen. Achieving these objectives would involve confronting and curbing the impetuous Saudi crown prince, who has backed IS, regime change in Syria, anti-Hizbollah politicians in Lebanon and waged a devastating war in Yemen.

Unfortunately, the prince has courted Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner in the expectation Washington would give Riyadh a free hand. So far, the US has lost influence by extending unconditional support for Saudi Arabia's destructive and dangerous policies.

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