Possible Solutions to Iran-Saudi Differences

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Hossein Bozorgmanesh
Expert on Middle East Issues

During recent weeks, tensions have reached their peak in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as two regional powers and symbols of Shia and Sunni denominations in the Islamic world. The escalation in tensions occurred following the execution of the renowned Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, by the Saudi government and subsequent storming of Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic missions by angry protesters in the Iranian cities of Tehran and Mashhad, which led to severance of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Although the two countries’ relations have seen many ups and downs following the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, since 2003 and after the fall of the government of former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, and the rise of Iraqi Shias to power, a new phase of cold and proxy war has started in relations between the two countries.

However, it seems that there are solutions through which tensions between the two countries can be managed and contained and regional crises can be resolved. The first and most important point for the management of the current crisis is to understand the realities in the Middle East region and don’t expect a return to the past. The government of Saudi Arabia should not expect the current conditions in Iraq to go back to when Saddam Hussein was governing the country and a Sunni minority ruled over the Shia majority. The viewpoint which expects the Iraqi Shias to once again accept the conditions that existed following the independence from Britain up to the end of the Baathist government, that is, renewed domination of Sunnis over the entire Iraq, is an unreal and totalitarian viewpoint. Also in Yemen, as long as the rights of the minority Zaidi Shias have not been recognized, nobody should expect the resolution of the political crisis in the country.

The military attack by the Arab coalition on Yemen cannot lead to annihilation of the Ansarullah group and problems in Yemen can be only solved through serious political negotiations as well as resilience and flexibility of the two sides. As for Syria, which has been grappling with a disastrous crisis since 2011, Saudi Arabia must accept the fact that the only person that can keep Syria’s state institutions united and integrated is the country’s President Bashar Assad. Riyadh must also accept that insisting on the fall of Assad and providing extensive aid to radical opponents of the Syrian government will have no outcome but a state of chaos like what is currently witnessed in Syria even if it ends in the fall of Bashar Assad’s government. The consequences of such measure will make all regional countries, including Saudi Arabia, suffer a heavy cost. Iran must also choose to encourage its regional allies to engage in interaction and establish close ties with Sunni Muslims.

For example, Sunnis in Iraq have a general feeling of being boycotted and serious isolation following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government, and believe that they have been marginalized by the government of the Shia majority. This idea must be done away with by helping the incumbent government in Iraq. In parallel, Iran can encourage Shia parties in Iraq to come up with a comprehensive political package in order to solve political, economic and infrastructural problems in Sunni-dominated regions of the country. In this way, they would get the trust of Sunni Muslims in Iraq and help manage and narrow the existing gap that exists between Shias and Sunnis. Also, in case of developments in Yemen, the solution is broad-based regional and transregional negotiations, while two points must be emphasized: firstly, the crisis in Yemen has no military solution and, secondly, the rights of Zaidi Shias, in view of their population in Yemen, cannot be ignored.

As for the crisis in Syria, Iran can encourage the government in Syria to pave the way for more participation of Sunni political elites, who are against armed and violent operations, in the political structure in Syria. In general, regional crises cannot be solved without cooperation and interaction between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the meantime, it seems that the current strategies adopted by Saudi Arabia in the region have not been successful and are basically facing a deadlock.

In order to open a new chapter in their relations, the two countries can cooperate in resolving less important crises in the region, such as the problem with the election of a new president in Lebanon. Due to differences between March 14 Alliance, which is close to Saudi Arabia, and March 8 Alliance, which is close to Iran and Syria, Lebanon has not been able to choose a president in the past two years. If such a cooperation proves successful, which is mostly possible through secret diplomacy, it could turn into a suitable model for interaction and settlement of differences between the two countries. In addition, in other critical areas, the two countries can engage in multilateral talks and make plans to end conflicts and proxy wars through correct understanding of their common interests and giving up efforts to meet their own interests to a maximum degree. In this way, they would be able to put an end to a number of major crises in the Middle East region.

Key WordsIran-Saudi Differences, Possible Solutions, Shia and Sunni Denominations, Islamic World, Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, Proxy War, Middle East, Yemen, Zaidi Shias, Resolution, Political Crisis, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bozorgmanesh

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*Photo Credit: Go

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