Helping ease tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia

Sunday 18/12/2016

Following a visit to Tehran and Riyadh as part of the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee report on fighting the Islamic State (ISIS), there is no doubt in my mind that a great deal of the growing instability in the Middle East stems from the increasing mutual mistrust and tension between regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran.

When one engages with our Iranian counterparts, it appears that everything is the fault of the Saudis, who are said to meddle in other countries’ affairs. Simi­larly, when in Riyadh, you are told that everything is the fault of the Iranians, with extensive allega­tions being made of Iran’s attempts to destabilise and intervene in a number of other countries’ affairs.

When the United Kingdom helped to broker the new accord with Iran over the nuclear prolif­eration issue, serious concerns were expressed, not just in Saudi Arabia but also in allies such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar, that this intervention did not address some of these coun­tries’ concerns over Iran’s alleged misdeeds in the region and solely focuses on the nuclear programme.

In recent years, the hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia has intensified to the point that diplo­matic relations have been broken off and each country is blaming the other for an increasingly wide­spread list of alleged wrongdoings.

These tensions have, some say, led to proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen and also to both sides opposing different sanctions in Syria and adding to tensions in Bahrain. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is, in my opinion, quite right to highlight this issue as a cause for major concern for the international communities.

If this situation is not resolved, it could, in the worst circumstances, lead to an outright conflict or war between the two sides that would clearly result in immense suffering and collateral damage.

Such a conflict could even lead to a blockage in the Gulf and, as 20% of the world’s oil supply flows out of this region. The obvious result on the global economy of such a scenario is all too painfully obvi­ous. I am pleased that our govern­ment has secured a permanent British sovereign naval base in Bahrain. This is a very important signal from us as to the importance of this feature.

Being Foreign and Common­wealth Affairs secretary of one of only five countries that are perma­nent members of the UN Security Council, Johnson is in the unique role to use Britain’s position in the world to work with the other four Security Council members — Chi­na, France, Russia and the United States — to do everything possible to collectively help Iran and Saudi Arabia ease tensions.

During peace talks over Syria in Vienna, Iran and Saudi Arabia sat at the table with others in trying to find a solution for that conflict. I believe that we need to see more of these discussions brokered by Johnson and his colleagues.

Each permanent member of the Security Council has a different relationship and influence over Saudi Arabia and Iran and it will take a great deal of painstakingly methodical, careful and diplomatic work over an extended period to make a breakthrough to gain confidence in our country’s ability to take a lead in such an initiative. I urge the Foreign secretary to make a start as soon as possible on this important task.