Dialogue-cum-Warning, Tehran’s Best Approach to Riyadh

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Saeid Jafari
Expert on Middle East Issues

As two major regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been grappling with various challenges in different areas for years. The rivalries and challenges between these two powers have at times led to some sort of covert war between the two countries. However, this situation has usually not gone beyond the limit of speculations and there have been rare cases, if any, in which officials of each country have overtly described the other country as a problem and a regional threat to its national interests. Now, however, such allegations are in the open.

Background of the latest round of Tehran-Riyadh tensions

An international coalition led by the United States attacked Iraq, which was then ruled by the country’s former dictator, Saddam Hussein, in March 2003. Saddam fell in a short time and his dictatorial rule, which was close to Saudi Arabia, was gradually replaced with a Shia-dominated government with close ties to Iran. Since that time, tensions have been escalating between Tehran and Riyadh. The domination of Shia Muslims on the new government in Iraq led to the establishment of a Shia axis which comprised the Shia government of Iraq, the Alawite government of Syria and an Islamic Lebanon where Hezbollah resistance movement sways high influence in line with regional interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran. That axis, per se, was the cause of great concern for the conservative rulers of Saudi Arabia. However, as time went by, new developments started to unravel in the region in the form of popular uprisings in the Arab countries, which made Saudi government even more wary of the perceived threat posed by Tehran.

These developments, which were collectively known as the Arab Spring, acted like a 6-magnitude earthquake and greatly concerned Saudi princes. However, the strength and intensity of that quake was gradually restrained as the power structure in Saudi Arabia was capable of bringing it under control. Now, the world is watching a Middle East in which Egypt has seen three presidents changing seats in a matter of three years and Syria has been grappling with an all-out civil war for about four years. At the same time, parts of Iraq have come under control of a militant group which calls itself the Islamic State and knows no other language but that of sword. The former Yemeni ruler, who was a friend of Riyadh is no more in power while in Lebanon, the Shia Hezbollah movement is still popular and has even the upper hand in the power structure of that country. On the other hand, Iraq has chosen Iran has its closest regional ally during the past 10 years. The sum total of the existing situation in the region has made the conservative regime of Saudi Arabia turn into a radical and extremist government. Conservative Saudi rulers, who were previously cautious about publicizing their positions on Iran, are now openly introducing Iran in their media as a major threat to Saudi Arabia. At present, [Saudi Foreign Minister Saud] al-Faisal sands shoulder to shoulder with his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to announce that Iran is not part of the solution to Middle East’s problems, but is an important part of the region’s problems itself. Or, in another instance, Prince Turki bin Faisal, an advisor to Saudi king, draws a clear analogy between Iran and North Korea, saying that the Islamic Republic will finally build the nuclear bomb.

Oil game

Naturally, Saudi Arabia will decide to play its own cards under such conditions. If Iran can mount pressure on Saudi Arabia through Iraq or Shia Houthis in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has an age-old tool at its disposal. It has been using that leverage for many long years and has been able to cause trouble for Iran both under the former monarchial regime, and now that the country is an Islamic Republic. The story of playing the game of oil prices by Saudi Arabia is not a new story as Riyadh had used global oil prices as a weapon against Iran in 1976 in order to put pressure on Tehran. In 2011, Prince Turki bin Faisal had warned Iran that if Tehran tried to use the unrest in the Arab world in its own favor, Saudi Arabia will play the oil price card. The oil price, which had hit USD 150 a barrel under the former Iranian administration, is currently sold for less than 55 dollars per barrel. Now, the question is what strategies Iran has to put in gear in response to unfriendly measures taken by Saudi Arabia?

First strategy: Playing the game to the end

Proponents of this strategy maintain that Iran should stand against Saudi Arabia to the end and make Riyadh surrender to its will. This group argues that the course of political developments in the Middle East region during the past decade has been rapidly changing in favor of Iran and to the detriment of Saudi Arabia. The government in Riyadh is now an isolated regional player and its sadistic behavior both at regional and international levels has decimated its friends at both levels. At present, more and more analysts in the United States are writing articles about the destructive role of Saudi Arabia in scuttling Washington’s policy in the Middle East. The proponents of this approach believe that given the multitude problems that are facing Saudi Arabia right now, withstanding the pressure from Riyadh will finally cause Tehran to emerge as the final winner in this duel.

Second strategy: Bargaining to clinch a deal

The proponents of this strategy, on the opposite, put the highest stress on the need to engage in direct dialogue with Saudi Arabia, and recognizing its share of regional political power by Iran. They also encourage Iran to engage in constructive interaction with its age-old regional rival. This group argues that since Iran's own problems in the region are increasing in number and the country  is paying a high price for pressures that have been put on it by the Saudi government, the most logical course of action for Iran is to own up to Saudi Arabia’s share of regional political power. Proponents of interaction also maintain that through constructive talks with Saudi Arabia and assuring Riyadh that Iran will not encroach upon its spheres of influence in the region, the Islamic Republic would be able to reduce useless costs that both countries are sustaining as a result of their ongoing hostility in various fields.

What should be done?

It seems that each group has a correct understanding of only part of the realities and, therefore, none of these solutions are ideal per se. Perhaps a combination of both approaches, that is, threat combined with negotiations, would be the best strategy under the present circumstances. It is a reality that Saudi Arabia is going through dire straits and it will soon face a crisis of succession. The existing conditions in various regional countries are also not in favor of Riyadh. However, this is not the whole truth. Saudi Arabia is still capable of facing Tehran with serious shocks just by playing the oil game. On the other hand, Wahhabi rulers have been able to sow instability across the Middle East by lending their support to Takfiri and jihadist groups. Therefore, although reconciliation with and recognition of the share of Saudi Arabia in regional political games can be a good option, Riyadh, on the other hand should be made understand that the measures it takes against Iran come at a price. Both under [the former Iranian monarch] Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and now that Iran is an Islamic Republic, the country has failed to convey this clear message to Saudi Arabia that continuation of its hostile measures against Iran will entail certain costs for Saudi Arabia. Perhaps, it is time for Iran to totally change its policy toward Saudi Arabia

Key Words: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Rivalries, Challenges, Tehran-Riyadh Tensions, Oil Game, Middle East Region, Constructive Interaction, Political Games, Jafari

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