Nowhere do geo-political upheavals take place so surprisingly as in the Middle East, and nowhere do ‘enemies’ become ‘friends’ overnight and vice versa. No wonder, the Middle East is the most volatile region in the world not only in terms of the deeply immersed conflicts but also in terms of the rapidity with which relations between states undergo changes. We can have a glimpse of the peculiar nature of the Middle Eastern geo-political landscape through the prism of Saudi-Iran relations, which have undergone some serious twists over the last few months. Developments at regional and global level have pushed both states towards amending their otherwise fractured relations.
A look at some of the recent contacts made at diplomatic level show the ‘seriousness’ on part of both states to amend their relations. For example, following a meeting between the Saudi ambassador to Tehran and former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in April, publicized largely due to controversy regarding reciprocal kisses on the forehead, reports surfaced in May that Rafsanjani was actually spearheading an effort to improve relations. Such efforts, so say the reports, have been given the nod of approval from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and involve a plan to discuss less complicated issues first. The meeting was followed by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud bin Faisal’s May 13 statement in which he stated that his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, could visit Riyadh “anytime he sees fit.”
The increased warmth being observed between the two states is, however, not the result of any dramatic convergence of interests, but the result of the US’ new grand strategy for the Middle East. In other words, twist in the Saudi-Iran relations is an effect of the US’ geo-political maneuverings rather than an independent policy decision taken by any of the two states. According to a June 2, 2014 report of Arab News, a high official in the Obama administration is encouraging, as a part of the US’ official policy, both Iran and Saudia to mend their relations. It has also been expressed that the US is actually using overt and covert pressure on both states. As such, for Iran the US is playing the ‘nuclear card’; and for Saudia, the US is playing the ‘Iran card’. That the US is deeply involved in bringing this twist can be gauged from the fact that last month, the US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Saudi in a quest to establish a détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Hagel got his cue from earlier remarks made by Iran’s President Rouhani, suggesting that Iran does intend to improve its ties with Saudi Arabia.
In this behalf, it is important to take into account that the US has been at the helm of introducing significant changes in Saudi Arabi’s establishment and some of the most anti-Iranian elements have either been removed or are going to be removed in a bid to pave the way for rapprochement. According to some reports, as also according to Iranian official Press TV, Saudi King Abdullah removed Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief, primarily because of his opposition to improving relations with Iran on behalf of Obama administration. The fact of his opposition becomes apparent when we take into account that he had also been Saudi ambassador to the US and was known to have had close ties with former US President George W. Bush, and that he was also an advocate of the US’ invasion of Iraq in 2003. However, Obama administration’s geo-political maneuvering, that now includes reversing G.W. Bush’s policy towards the Middle East, had put the former intelligence chief in an awkward position vis-à-vis the US and his own State. Following the same tide, it is now being expected that the person now going to be removed is the current Saudi foreign minister. The reason for his removal is again his hawkish stance towards Iran. In an interview to New York Times in 2009, he is stated to have said that Iran must never be allowed to develop a nuclear program of any sort whatsoever.
The fact that Saudi Arabia has been compelled to reverse its position in accordance with geo-political scenario dramatically changing as a result of US-Iran deal, howsoever fragile it might be, is indicative of the relative positions of both Iran and Saudia under the current circumstances. Clearly, Iranian diplomacy has outmaneuvered the Saudis in their bid to establish Sunni hegemony in the Middle East. As a matter of fact, the Saudi rulers were fuming at the success of Iranian diplomacy in reaching successfully out of sanction quagmire, which has in turn greatly normalized Iran’s international relations and enhance the country’s regional prowess.
An additional factor that seems to have played a pivotal role in forcing both the US and Saudia to change policy towards Iran is their failure in changing regime in Syria. Syria, that was supposed to provide ‘the road to Iran’ for the US and Saudia, has turned out to be a game changer in the Middle East leading to significant breakthroughs. In this behalf, Saudi Arabia is most likely to see that failure to improve relations with Iran would be closing a door at a time when it prefers to keep all of them open. While it cannot be ruled out that both sides recognize that the regional situation, particularly in Syria, is becoming untenable, at this point Iran holds the higher position. With ongoing talks regarding a permanent agreement between Tehran and the P5+1 in the background, along with increasing visits by Western business delegations to the country, Saudi Arabia sees Iran’s re-emergence as a regional and economic power as the most likely rather than a mere potential possibility. As such, to keep its options open, the Saudis have come to this realization that they might have even to co-operate with Iran in future as far as settlement of crisis in Syria is concerned.
But the important question that needs to be emphatically answered here is: why is the US bringing the two erstwhile ‘enemy’ states together? Is it a part of the US’ policy of redesigning the entire landscape of the Middle East and making its own hegemony more deeply entrenched? In other words, this strategy of the US seems to be perfect when linked with the “Asia Pivot.” If major targets of the “Asia Pivot” are China and Russia, control over entire Middle East is of immense significance for the US—hence, Saudia-Iran rapprochement. This control would enable the US manipulate the world’s largest energy producer, and thereby, global economy. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, may not have realized it when he put all the eggs in the Israeli-Palestinian peace basket that no bilateral relationship in the Middle East is more consequential and important for the region’s future and the US interests than the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
But the US cannot achieve this objective easily given the peculiar nature of Saudi-Iran relations and the general political landscape of the Middle East. The US seems to have oversimplified the situation for its own convenience. Intricacies of Saudi-Iran relations are not built solely around the Syrian issue, however. These two regional powers are on opposite sides on virtually every single issue. Primarily, both are vying for power and influence in the Persian Gulf. In Syria, Iran supports the Assad regime and Hezbollah while the Saudis support the Sunni rebels in Syria and the anti-Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. In the Palestinian territories, the Saudis support Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, and the Two-State solution, while the Iranians back Hamas and reject the Two-State solution. And in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is an Iranian ally, while the Saudis support the Sunni rebels/fighters. They are also in competition within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). In addition to these conflicting interests, there are the ethnic (Arab versus Persian) and sectarian (Sunni Saudi Arabia versus Shiite Iran) differences, which are likely to leave deep imprints on or rather defy any attempt at rapprochement.
It is for this reason that it would be extremely naïve and an oversimplification of the ground realities if we contemplate a complete normalization of relations between both states, especially when reports of Saudi-Israel anti-Iran alliance have also come to limelight. The fact that both Saudia and Iran have been and are working to sabotage each others’ ambitions is a sufficient evidence of the historically deep seated animosity between them. Although it is difficult to categorically conclude that rapprochement cannot take place at all; however, difficulties impeding it are too formidable to be overcome by mere exchange of ministers. The US’ role must also not be simplified as a mere mediator. She has her own interests to pursue; and, the more the Middle East remains divided, the more the US and its allies stand to achieve both politically and economically. Politically an internally hostile Middle East would allow the West to play off countries like Saudia and Iran against one another; and economically, this hostility would allow them to buy cheap oil as well as sell them costly weapons. Additionally, a divided Middle East means more room for the US to place more troops in the region and exert more influence on the regional states in order to manipulate their foreign as well as domestic policies and priorities. Divide and rule is the classic stratagem that has still not escaped the Western political and military sense.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.