Optimism will prevail

Optimism will prevail : There are several reasons why stormy ties between the two major countries of the region will not result in a full-scale war.

Optimism will prevail
It is worth risking being on the wrong side of pessimism. So, here is an optimistic analysis of the Saudi Arabia-Iran tension that has metamorphosed into a full-scale diplomatic war, exposing the deep cleavages of the Sunni-Shiite conflict in West Asia.

The feud will remain at this delicate stage at its worst and not escalate into a military war, as some analysts fear. It is in nobody’s interest for the two regional giants to get more aggressive than they already have. There are enough regional proxy wars that Saudi Arabia and Iran are already involved in for them to realise that continued ‘war’ is not the answer. This conflictual relationship is unsustainable and unsound in the long term.

In such a milieu, the answer to their long-lasting ideological battle is dialogue, negotiation, cooperation and peace, which is still possible and may eventually materialise as the dust of this game of brinkmanship settles to an unproductive dead-end.

In the latest feud, Sunni Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Shiite Iran on January 3 after an Iranian mob stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran (There has been no Saudi ambassador in Iran for nearly two years). This crisis developed following the Kingdom’s execution of several political dissidents, including a prominent Saudi Shiite Muslim cleric, Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr.

Soon after, both countries imposed retaliatory diplomatic and trade curbs. Several Arab countries followed suit by downgrading diplomatic ties with Iran, which has put an already fragile relationship under intense scrutiny. Yet, the optimism for rapprochement stems from the following reasons.

First, the Saudi-Iran sectarian-political-hegemonic rivalry has seen tense times in the past too, but never degenerated into a direct war in modern times. The root of Sunni-Shiite divide lies in the succession row following the death of Prophet Mohammed in 632.
More recently, tension prevailed following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Iran-Iraq war. The death of hundreds of Saudis and Iranians in the 1987 Mecca clashes accentuated the division, followed by Riyadh severing diplomatic ties in 1988.

Mohammed Khatami’s election as Iranian president in 1997 ushered a period of calm, even resulting in a security pact in 2001. But the US invasion of Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s ouster empowered the country’s Shiite majority and influenced a shift in its political alignment towards Iran, which hurt Saudi interests.

Iran’s nuclear energy programme deepened Saudi fears that Tehran, under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was pursuing a policy of dominating the Gulf and expanding its influence among Shiite populations of Arab countries – the Shiite ‘Crescent’ in and ‘encirclement’ of West Asia.

Any tentative steps towards another rapprochement during the late years of the last decade were squashed by the Arab uprising that engaged both countries in proxy wars in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, leading up to the current crisis.

The second reason for optimism that they could still make up at some stage is though the two countries are feuding, the third player in the margins is the United States. Riyadh may be indirectly targeting Washington, which spearheaded the nuclear deal with Tehran, thereby strengthening the Shiite country’s regional influence and opening the doors for its return to the global economic and political mainstream. Conversely, it has left Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies searching for fresh answers in several strategic domains.

Washington’s dislike for direct military intervention in West Asian conflicts in recent years has also brought Russia to the fore and upset Riyadh’s plans in Syria. This has forced Riyadh to stretch beyond its comfort zone in dealing with Tehran’s influence in Syria and Yemen. This includes armed involvement against the Al-Houthis in Yemen.

By acting tough with Iran, Saudi Arabia could either be indicating to the US that it is capable of fending for itself (along with an Islamic coalition) or pressuring it to recalibrate its rapprochement with Iran (which the US presidential elections could facilitate) or forcing its active intervention to resolve the reigning crises in its favour.

Domestic issues

Third, just as Saudi Arabia may be targeting the US more than Iran through this feud, the real target of the Iranian orchestrators of the embassy attack may not be the Kingdom. Instead it could be a domestic political turf war between the hardliners, who are opposed to the Iranian deal with the United States, and the President Hassan Rouhani-led reformist camp.

Iran is scheduled to hold elections for the Islamic Consultative Assembly and the Assembly of Experts on February 26. Shiite preacher Sheikh Nimr’s execution in Riyadh is a hot potato during election season.

The fourth rationale for optimism is the oil price. At less than $35 a barrel, both countries are struggling to manage their economies. Venturing into a war that would definitely drain their resources further, and almost definitely leave their differences unresolved, could make them lean in favour of crisis management and conflict resolution.

Fifth, there were reports attributed to the Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson in late December 2015 that diplomatic efforts were under way to open “direct dialogue” between Iran and Saudi Arabia “to resolve differences and regional issues”. There may still be room to walk amid the tough talk.

Sixth, the more these two countries feud, the more the Islamic State gains. This should serve as motivation for Saudi Arabia and Iran to set aside their ideological differences and work towards neutralising the common enemy.

The last reason for optimism that cooperation is still possible stems from the US-Iran rapprochement, unimaginable a few years ago. If this was achievable, a Saudi-Iran thaw is not impossible.

(The writer is a Dubai-based political analyst, author and Honorary Fellow of the University of Exeter, UK)
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