Saudi-Iranian tensions and the prospects for mediation
DUBAI - Saudi-Iranian relations have always been complicated, considering the countries’ contending world views and regional interests, but peaceful co-existence seems more difficult than ever.
Iran boasts more regional importance than it has ever had and is positioned to increase that influence further with a nuclear accord that removes crippling economic sanctions that will free as much as $150 billion in frozen assets and reopen Iranian markets to the global economy.
Alternatively, Saudi Arabia has found it difficult to reverse growing Iranian influence (especially in Lebanon and Iraq) and is now engaged in what many see as testing proxy war with Iran in Yemen.
On top of this, Saudi Arabia is bearing the consequences of the prolonged Syrian civil war where the Iran-allied Assad regime is being resurrected by Russian hard power as the Islamic State (ISIS) comes to the fore as a new strategic threat.
More broadly, Iran has become patron-in-chief of political Shia Islam — charged by Arab Gulf states of meddling in the internal affairs of Bahrain, Yemen and even Saudi Arabia itself, where it is seen to be constructing a fifth column. Iran spearheads a regional alliance with Syria, Iraq and a host of non-state actors across the region — notably in Lebanon with Hezbollah, in the Palestinian territories with Hamas and in Yemen with the Houthis — that continues to grow in strength, numbers and reach.
To buttress its deepening political influence, Iran has developed a robust missile programme as the centrepiece of its asymmetric warfare strategy and is able to attack civilian and critical infrastructure targets deep into the Arab Gulf without warning and within minutes. Iran can potentially blockade the Strait of Hormuz and its status as a threshold nuclear weapons state adds to the security conundrum for the Gulf.
Despite these dynamics, the United States has failed under President Barack Obama’s administration to address Gulf Arab concerns about Iran. Rather than developing an effective push-back to Iranian advances, the United States discounted Gulf Arab threat perceptions and effectively recognised Iranian regional gains over the last decade as legitimate.
As such, while perceptions of US disengagement from the Arab Gulf may be exaggerated, the White House has failed to show the leadership its regional allies expect from a security guarantor.
Iranian gains around the region almost always represent losses for Saudi Arabia in what is, like it or not, a zero-sum game between two regional rivals.
The Saudis have decided they are having no more. Saudi-Iranian tensions draw international attention, which is useful to Saudi strategy — it helps Riyadh, which worries that Iran will become more adventurous in generating instability in and around the kingdom, to, at least in part, gain leverage. This is a dynamic that any mediation efforts to de-escalate Saudi-Iranian tensions, including those by Pakistan and China, will need to acknowledge.
Saudi leaders may well be more open to co-existence with Iran than the Iranians are to Saudi Arabia — even as Iran becomes more open to co-existence with the Americans. However, an unchecked Iran means an insecure Gulf and what the Saudis are on the lookout for are international partnerships that can reinforce regional security because, while the current US administration may be listening, it is not acting. Separately, the wait in Riyadh for a US president more hawkish on Iran has begun. While Pakistan, whose prime minister and, more importantly, army chief followed up visits from the Saudi foreign and defence minister with visits to Riyadh and then Tehran, and China, whose president recently travelled to Riyadh, Cairo and Tehran, will apply their strong influence with the Saudi and Iranian leaderships to moderate regional tensions, both are unlikely to achieve major breakthroughs.
Saudi-Iranian tensions may not have a solution soon but the flow of oxygen feeding them can be reduced. If Islamabad and Beijing seriously want to support mediation efforts then it is Moscow and Muscat they need to connect with, whose roles in ending the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars, respectively, are decisive. Establishing peace processes in Syria and Yemen, however fragile, that deliver an acceptable endgame for the Arab Gulf is crucial for containing a Saudi-Iranian cold war where the stakes have been raised dangerously high.