Iran-Saudi Tension: Can an Unexpected Development Improve Tehran-Riyadh Tense Ties?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Shahir ShahidSaless

In an analytical article published on Al-Monitor website, the Saudi analyst Abdulmajeed al-Buluwi has tried to explore basic grounds on which the Saudi foreign policy has been founded. One of the main topics of his article was the foreign policy approach taken by Saudi Arabia toward Iran. Al-Buluwi has written that if it were not for the presence of a Shia minority in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government would not be willing to take steps to curb Iran's influence in the region. From his viewpoint, increased influence of Iran in the region will strengthen the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia and make them think about bolstering their political role in the power equations of Saudi Arabia.

Elsewhere in his article, the Saudi analyst has noted that the current foreign policy adopted by Saudi Arabia is not simply an outcome of Riyadh’s concern about its regional standing, but also, and more importantly, a result of concern over faltering role and position of Saudi political elite within the Saudi government structure.

In other words, despite common analyses which try to view Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran within framework of general rivalry between Shias and Sunnis to gain the upper hand in the region, al-Buluwi argues that Saudi Arabia’s decision to counter Iran's regional influence is rooted in the country’s domestic policies. In better words, Saudi Arabia is countering Iran to prevent its own Shia minority from claiming a share from the country’s power.

If this analysis is accurate, then it can be assumed that the article is pointing to the existence of a major flaw in the foreign policy apparatus of the Saudi kingdom.

It would be logical to assume that adoption of hostile policies by Saudi Arabia will increase the chances of Iran supporting any kind of social movement launched by Saudi Shias. During the popular uprising in Bahrain in 2011 and 2012, Iran's support for that uprising led to a severe war of words between Iran, on the one hand, and the member states of (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC], on the other hand. The aftermath of those developments still overshadows Iran's relations with Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, if Tehran and Riyadh established friendly relations, Iran would not be willing to instigate Saudi Shias and create a security threat for itself.

It would be erroneous to assume that Iran's foreign policy is merely based on ideology with no respect for the country’s expediencies. During the suppression of Chechnya’s Muslims in 2008 by the Russian government, Iran announced that it was an internal affair of Russia and offered no support for Chechen Muslims. In another similar case, when the government of China cracked down on Uyghur Muslims in that country during 2011, Iran did not show much of a reaction. Therefore, it is the hostile policies of Riyadh toward Tehran that evoke reactions from the Islamic Republic. In reaction to those policies, providing support for the Shia community in Saudi Arabia will be certainly put on the foreign policy agenda of Iran as a measure aimed to counter Saudi Arabia’s aggressive approach toward Iran. Meanwhile, secret documents released by the whistleblower website, Wikileaks, have revealed that Saudi Arabian officials had asked the United States to attack Iran and “cut the snake’s head.”

At any rate, the point which is clear is that Iran is ready to establish cordial relations with Saudi Arabia. This issue is also compatible with the general strategic ideas pursued by the [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani’s administration for “reconciliation with the world.” Speaking at a ceremony on March 3, 2014, in which the new Saudi Ambassador Abdulrahman bin Gharman Al-Shihri presented his credentials to the Iranian president, Rouhani said, “The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran is bent on maintaining and expanding cordial and friendly relations with Islamic countries, especially its neighbors, and among them, Saudi Arabia enjoys a special and prominent position for Iran.”

Another issue that has been mentioned by Abdulmajeed al-Buluwi as a determining factor in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is preventing the growth of political Islam. Al-Buluwi has noted that the Saudi foreign policy apparatus gives priority to this policy as a means of protecting the position of domestic political elite within that country. He once again, reaches the conclusion that Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is heavily influenced by its domestic policies with its main goal being to preserve the power of the ruling elite.

If this view is accepted, it would follow that there is duality and an evident internal conflict in the foreign policy approaches of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s position on the Syria war is to spare no effort to overthrow [the Syrian President] Bashar Assad and, thus, reduce strategic depth of Iran in the region. However, the means that Saudi Arabia has chosen to achieve this goal is to provide unbridled support for such extremist groups as Al-Jabha Al-Islamiyya Al-Suriyya (the Islamic Front of Syria), whose ideal goal is to establish a government based on sharia rules. Such a government would be strategically at odds with the model of Saudi Arabia’s government and its foreign policy as defined by Al Balwi.

In other words, Saudi Arabia seeks to promote one aspect of its foreign policy in Syria, which is to curb Iran's influence in the region, by providing all-out support for radical jihadist groups. However, on the other hand, it is actually fostering a strategic enemy by supporting such groups.

Available evidence shows that the United States is well aware of the risks of further empowerment of such jihadist groups as Al-Qaeda. As a result, the United States Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said on February 7 that the situation in Syria has turned into a matter of national security for the United States.

As Al Monitor has always emphasized, the United States should try to make Iran a partner to its policy in Syria and in the fight against the threat posed by armed jihadist groups. From Syria to Iraq and even Afghanistan, it would not be possible for the United States to continue to fight against such groups without cooperation from Iran.

As long as the United States’ close ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, is in a covert war with Iran, Washington will not be able to achieve this goal. Therefore, it seems that if the United States is willing to cooperate with Iran to fight further expansion of terrorism in the region, it should first take steps to help Iran and Saudi Arabia improve their relations. Now, is it actually possible for the United States to surprisingly appear in a new mediatory role and take steps for the improvement of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia because such improvement is requisite for later cooperation between Iran and the United States in preventing spread of extremist jihadist forces in the region?

*Shahir ShahidSaless holds a master’s degree in international relations from University of London and a master’s in Geopolitics and Grand Strategy from Sussex University of the UK. Being a resident of Canada, he has carried out extensive research on Iran's relations with the United States and has many written works on this subject. He can be reached at:

Key Words: Iran-Saudi Tension, Abdul Majid Al Balwi, Shia Minority, Cordial Relations, Domestic Policies, US, Extremist Jihadist Forces, ShahidSaless

Source: Al Monitor
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

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*Photo Credit: IR Diplomacy

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