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Dr N. Janardhan: Storm before the calm?
January 14, 2016
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

It is worth risking being on the wrong side of pessimism. So, here is an optimistic analysis of the Saudi-Iran tension that has metamorphosed into a full-scale diplomatic war, exposing the deep cleavages of sectarian conflict in the Middle East.

The feud will remain at this delicate stage at its worst. It is in nobody’s interest for the two regional giants to get more aggressive. There are enough regional proxy wars that Saudi Arabia and Iran are already involved in to realise that continued ‘war’ is not the answer. This conflictual relationship is unsustainable and unsound in the long term.

In such a milieu, the answer to their long-lasting ideological battle is dialogue, negotiation, cooperation and peace, which is still possible and may eventually materialise as the dust of this game of brinkmanship settles to an unproductive dead-end.

In the latest feud, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran on 3 January after an Iranian mob stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. (There has been no Saudi ambassador in Iran for nearly two years.) This crisis developed following the Kingdom’s execution of several political dissidents, including a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr.

Soon after, both countries imposed retaliatory diplomatic and trade curbs. Several Arab countries followed suit by downgrading diplomatic ties with Iran, which has put an already fragile relationship under intense scrutiny.

Yet, the optimism for rapprochement stems from the following reasons.

First, the Saudi-Iran sectarian-political-hegemonic rivalry has seen tense times in the past too, but never degenerated into a direct conflict. Starting with the succession row in 632 to the more recent divisive events – the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein’s ouster, which empowered Iran, the nuclear energy programme, and the Arab uprisings that engaged both countries in proxy wars in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, leading up to the current crisis – tension has, in fact, been punctuated by rapprochement efforts, even though they have been unsuccessful.

The second reason for optimism that they could still make up at some stage is though the two countries are feuding, the third player in the margins is the United States. Riyadh may be indirectly targeting Washington, which spearheaded the nuclear deal with Tehran, thereby strengthening Iran’s regional influence and opening the doors for its return to the global economic and political mainstream. Conversely, it has left Saudi Arabia and its allies searching for fresh answers in several strategic domains.

Washington’s dislike for direct military intervention in the Middle East conflicts in recent years has also brought Russia to the fore and upset Saudi plans in Syria. This has forced Riyadh to stretch beyond its comfort zone in dealing with Tehran’s influence in Syria and Yemen. This includes direct military involvement against the Al-Houthis in Yemen.

By acting tough with Iran, Saudi Arabia could either be indicating to the United States that it is capable of fending for itself (along with an Islamic coalition) or pressuring it to recalibrate its rapprochement with Iran (which the US presidential elections could facilitate) or forcing its active intervention to resolve the reigning crises in its favour.

Third, just as Saudi Arabia may be targeting the United States more than Iran through this feud, the real target of the Iranian orchestrators of the embassy attack may not be the Kingdom. Instead, it could be a domestic political turf war between the hardliners, who are opposed to the Iranian deal with the United States, and the President Hassan Rouhani-led reformist camp.

Iran is scheduled to hold elections for the Islamic Consultative Assembly and the Assembly of Experts on 26 February. Sheikh Nimr’s execution is serving as a hot potato during election season.

The fourth rationale for optimism is the oil price. At less than $35 a barrel, both countries are struggling to manage their economies. The fact that venturing into further confrontation would definitely drain their resources even more – and almost definitely leave their differences unresolved – could make them lean in favour of crisis management and conflict resolution.

Fifth, there were reports attributed to the Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson in late December 2015 that diplomatic efforts were under way to open “direct dialogue” between Iran and Saudi Arabia “to resolve differences and regional issues”. There may still be room to walk amid the tough talk.

Sixth, the more these two countries feud, the more the horrific Daesh gains. This should serve as motivation for Saudi Arabia and Iran to set aside their ideological differences and work towards neutralising the common, regional and global enemy, and lay the foundation for a new regional security architecture.

The last reason for optimism that cooperation is still possible stems from the US-Iran rapprochement, which was unimaginable just a few years ago. If this was achievable, a Saudi-Iran thaw is not impossible.

The author is a UAE-based political analyst, author
and Honorary Fellow of the University of Exeter, UK

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