Possible Scenarios for Future Relations of Iran and Saudi Arabia

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Saeid Jafari
Expert on Middle East Issues

When it comes to analysis of political systems, Saudi Arabia is mostly considered a conservative system. It is a system, which usually does not welcome change and puts the highest emphasis on the need to maintain the existing ruling system. However, for a number of years now, this system has been experiencing change in its fundamental concepts and has been following different ideas, especially in its foreign policy. Alterations in regional order have caused this political system not to stick to the current situation anymore and it has been trying to behave in a reformist manner in its foreign policy. Conditions in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq have not fared in line with Saudi Arabia’s plans and Riyadh has been trying to manage the general atmosphere in the region in line with its own demands, though regional trends have mostly ended in Tehran’s benefit.

On the other hand, achievement of the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 group of countries, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), will lead to unfreezing of Iran's frozen money in the West, while removal of economic sanctions and restrictions provides Iran with an opportunity to boost its capacities in global environment, especially in the region.

Saudi Arabia sees its foreign policy equation with Iran as a zero-sum game, as a result of which it considers its own win as Iran's loss and Iran's win as its own loss. Under such circumstances, the analysis of Riyadh’s foreign policy approach toward Tehran may seem easier.

At the same time, Iran's approach to regional conditions has been different. Under conditions that Iran continues to emphasize the need to reduce tensions in bilateral relations, Saudi Arabia does not consider removal of tensions to be in its benefit and is trying to change the bilateral equation, at least, in several cases of dispute, including in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

Syria: In Syria, not only efforts made to launch a military attack on the country have failed, but also the removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad from power as a precondition for peace has lost its luster now and dismissal of Assad has been postponed, at least, until the end of the transition period.

Iraq: although the government of former Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who was close to Iran, is not in place anymore, in the balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the new government of Haider al-Abadi has not taken sides with Riyadh in the most optimistic state.

Lebanon: despite all political jockeying over selection of the country’s new president, all available evidence shows that at the end of the day a person close to Iran and Hezbollah resistance movement will be appointed to this post. At the same time, the political current supported by Saad Hariri (who is an ally of Saudi Arabia) has failed to push into presidential post its favorite option for this position.

New phase of Saudi Arabia’s measures

Following the above failures, Saudi Arabia has entered a new phase of its efforts, which are aimed at changing the existing regional order.

The military aggression against Yemen; recent execution of top Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr; severing diplomatic relations with Iran; and making an effort to form an axis of Arab countries in order to isolate Iran, in addition to sharp and provocative remarks by senior Saudi officials can be all considered as components of the new phase of Saudi Arabia’s approach, which is aimed at bringing about an alteration in regional order.

Of course, certain unpredictable and abnormal measures taken by radical Iranian currents such as the recent storming of Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran can be assessed within the same framework as they can help Saudi Arabia’s efforts to change the existing regional balance.

Possible scenarios

First scenario: Iran's preemptive measure, Saudi Arabia’s desirable scenario

The scenario that is desirable for Saudi Arabia is one in which Iran would take a preemptive measure. This means that Saudi Arabia would be able to raise the costs for Tehran in the region so high that Iran would not be able to tolerate anymore and decide to take practical and direct retaliatory steps in the face of indirect and provocative moves by Riyadh. Under these conditions, although both countries would get involved in a costly conflict whose outlook would not be very clear, chances for relative triumph of Riyadh would be high, because in view of its rich oil and foreign exchange reserves and also due to having the support of the United States as a strategic ally, the balance would tip in favor of Saudi Arabia.

Second scenario: Saudi Arabia will drown itself

The second scenario envisages Iran's smart moves and continuation of costly measures by Riyadh in this dispute. In this scenario, Saudi Arabia will increase the frequency of its provocative acts without gaining a remarkable achievement in return. The situation in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon will continue to fare in Tehran’s favor and Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen (regardless of its final result) will impose hefty costs on Riyadh. At the same time “the fog of war” will cast doubts on the possible exit of Saudi Arabia from this state of war and cause this possibility to be surrounded by many ambiguities. Remarkable budget deficit in Saudi Arabia during the current year will increase possibility of this scenario. At the same time, Tehran’s abstinence from getting caught in this quagmire will cause Saudi Arabia to increase its provocative measures in an exponential manner, while increased criticism of irresponsible behavior of Saudi Arabia by the Western countries will push Riyadh into a more defensive position. At a time that Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani are depicting a logical image of Iran through their presence in international organizations, such measures as the execution of Saudi Arabia’s most famous political dissident and military adventurism in Yemen in addition to continued supply of financial, logistic and theoretical support for such terrorist currents as Daesh will reduce the possibility of international actors supporting Saudi Arabia in this dispute.

Third scenario: Israel winner of the game

The most realistic speculation, however, is the third scenario. In this scenario, since Saudi Arabia continues to emphasize its opposition with Iran, Tehran will have to show reactions to Riyadh’s actions in some instances. However, tension between the two countries will not go beyond a certain level and international actors will also mediate between the two sides, which will not be fruitful in short term. Both countries will have to pay a high price for this crisis without winning it. In its definition of threat perception, Iran does not enter Saudi Arabia as a factor and considers Israel as its top priority in the region, while Saudi Arabia considers Iran as its number one enemy. This is a lose-lose equation with no absolute winner, though Saudi Arabia will suffer higher costs and Riyadh’s gamble will end without any remarkable achievement. This gamble, however, will make Israel the happiest party in the region, because global focus on its measures will decrease while its enemies and sources of threat continue to gradually wear each other out.

Key WordsIran, Saudi Arabia, Future Relations, Possible Scenarios, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Preemptive Measure, Israel, Winner, Jafari 

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