How Long Riyadh Is Going to Continue Escalating Tension with Tehran?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Hassan Ahmadian
Ph.D., Senior Researcher; Center for Strategic Research (CSR)

Saudi Arabia has managed to include priorities of its regional policies in the final statements of the latest meetings of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC], the Arab League, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. This is by itself a diplomatic win. However, in a period of transition and confrontation, diplomacy is just a small portion of the big picture. In fact, Saudis, by giving priority to escalating tension with Iran, have set aside regional diplomacy as an option. Riyadh has even used multilateral diplomacy within the aforesaid institutions in line with its own policy to foment tension with Tehran. The “Salman Doctrine” is the name given to this development by Saudi strategists. The question, however, is what are the characteristics of this new approach and what will be its benefits and costs for Saudi Arabia, in particular, and for the entire Middle East region, in general?

What Saudi strategists insist on calling the “Salman Doctrine” is the new approach taken by Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy apparatus under the country’s King Salman. This approach has three characteristics. First of all, instead of countering regional developments, Saudi Arabia wants to drive them ahead, of course, provided that these developments are in line with regional policies of Saudi Arabia and end in the weakening of Iran. Saudi Arabia’s approach to Syria crisis and also to the situation in Egypt under the country’s former president, Mohamed Morsi, are two examples of this approach. The second characteristic is an effort to fill the strategic void created by reduced involvement of the United States in the issues of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, which believes that the United States is retreating in the face of Iran following the conclusion of Tehran’s nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), pursues the goal of filling the void caused by reduced role of the United States in the region. Its goal is to prevent further enhancement in Iran’s role, on the one hand while increasing Saudi Arabia’s share in the Middle East developments, on the other side. The third characteristic of Saudi Arabia’s new approach is escalating tension against Iran.

Why Saudi Arabia has made it its goal to escalate tension with Iran in a continuous and incremental manner? By escalating tension with Iran, Saudi Arabia is trying to provide itself with opportunities at regional and international levels. In other words, Riyadh is trying through building coalitions in the region against Iran to assume the axial role in these coalitions. In doing this, Riyadh is taking advantage of its financial and propaganda potential in order to get other Arab and Muslim countries in line with its policies. The tendency on the part of Riyadh to take advantage of a sectarian discourse in order to undermine Iran’s regional standing was, of course, evident before King Salman as well. However, under King Salman, an ethnic Arab dimension has been added to the sectarian dimension of Riyadh’s anti-Iran effort. The goal is to strengthen the position of Saudi Arabia in the Arab world in the face of Iran and also reduce tension with religious minorities as a result of the sectarian discourse.

Riyadh has made weakening Iran’s regional and international positions its goal. From the viewpoint of Saudi Arabia, conflict with Iran can be beneficial to its own national security and that of countries around it. From this viewpoint, Saudi Arabia’s security concerns toward Iran evolve into regional and even international dimensions. In addition, from Riyadh’s viewpoint, escalation of tension with Iran is done in line with Saudi Arabia’s claim to be the leader of the Islamic and Arab world. This means that tension with Iran, under the religious and ethnically charged atmosphere created after the Arab Spring, will define Saudi Arabia as a more suitable option for most Arab and Islamic countries.

Although King Salman’s approach has so far shaped and set the direction of a number of final statements issued in the meetings of such institutions as the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, it has not created any strategic change in regional equations. In fact, from a political and propaganda viewpoint, such statements cannot be expected to make a serious impression on Saudi Arabia’s coalition building approach. This issue was especially evident in the case of the coalition that Saudi Arabia formed to attack Yemen. In that war, the participation of Saudi Arabia’s allies was so low that the country had to resort to international mercenaries and finally, after 13 months of bombarding Yemen, accepted a bilateral ceasefire. In this way, it became clear that the model according to which Arab countries vote in such meetings is quite different from the model according to which they act in practice. Saudi Arabia is also aware of these limitations. So, why it continues with its approach to escalate tension with Iran? In answer to this question it must be noted that the Middle East is going through a period of transition. In this period, decisions made by countries are based on those countries’ short-term viewpoints and do not necessarily follow an accurate strategy. Now, if we take into account the point that due to Washington’s security umbrella, Saudi Arabia has not reached maturity in its strategic behavior yet, a clearer image of why the country continues to escalate tension with Iran despite its limited results can be depicted.

Under these conditions, the question about how regional tensions can be reduced, and especially how Iran's relations with Saudi Arabia can be mended in a way that would restore stability to the region, would seem more challenging. This is true because, on the one hand, we are faced with a country, which is concerned about regional developments (Saudi Arabia) and has chosen escalation of tension as its optimal option in the short term, while on the other hand, we are faced with the doubt that international powers have about getting more involved in regional crises in the Middle East.

The important point is that Saudi Arabia cannot make serious strategic decisions in an independent manner. Saudi Arabia has gotten used to see its domestic security and stability as part of the West’s approach to the region. For this reason, the possibility of a 28-page report on the role of Saudi Arabia in the 9/11 terror attacks be released makes Saudis such hysteric. In fact, by guaranteeing security of Saudi Arabia, the United States has stymied strategic maturity of the country’s officials. Now, the role played by the West in modifying Riyadh’s desperate approaches to Iran can be an axial role. If Riyadh’s actions are not brought under control, there is no doubt that the Middle East will head for more widespread crises. Only those countries, which are responsible for ensuring Saudi Arabia’s security can convince Riyadh to accept establishment of the “cold peace” in the Middle East as a strategic goal. Otherwise, Riyadh enjoys being active in the region – despite absence of any strategic achievement – and one cannot expect Saudi Arabia to independently give up this childish pleasure seeking game, which of course, has domestic dimensions as well.

Key WordsRiyadh, Tension, Tehran, Saudi Arabia, Priorities, Regional Policies, (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, Arab League, Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Salman Doctrine, Strategic Void, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran, King Salman, Sectarian Dimension, Middle East, Security, Cold Peace, Ahmadian

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