By Misbah Arif, WEEKLY PULSE MAGAZINE, February 24, 2014
Middle East is going through revolutionary changes, having significant impact on the policies of Middle Eastern states and the United States. Failure of Geneva round II had become center of question and critique. Despite these revolutionary steps, some ground realities remained unchanged. One such example is the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Oil rich Saudi Arab and Iran are not only divided by the Persian Gulf, but also along religious lines. Saudi Arabia has a predominant Sunni Muslim population, while Iran is mostly Shiite. Cold war between regional rivals started decades ago on the issues of religion, politics, and urge for economic dominance in the region. During 1960s and 1970s, both countries were ally of U.S. deterring the influence of Soviet communism in the Middle Eastern region. Tehran and Riyadh entered a new stage during Iranian revolution of 1979 fraught with mistrust and hostility.
During 1960s and 1970s, both countries were ally of U.S. deterring the influence of Soviet communism in the Middle Eastern region. Tehran and Riyadh entered a new stage during Iranian revolution of 1979 fraught with mistrust and hostility.
The two regional rivals want to maintain their power and influence in the region. Both sides believe that the other one not only wants a greater role in the region, but also wants to get control the region. They are competing for dominance in global energy, economic build up, nuclear technology and having influence in Persian Gulf region and the Levant. Tehran and Riyadh are said to be neither enemies nor allies, but natural rivals who are always competing with one another. Until 1979, this rivalry was managed by U.S. with whom both were allies. But once the Shah of Iran was overthrown, Riyadh was not able to maintain same relations with Ayatollah Khamenei. A dramatic change was obvious when after Islamic revolution Riyadh remained ally of U.S, but Iran turned out to be foe.
There are no permanent friends and foes in international politics, only interests are permanent. Iran sees Saudi Arabia as a well-off, motivated proxy of the United States and Saudi Arabia views Iran as a major source of instability in the region, believing that it seeks to establish a so-called Shia Crescent to dominate Arab Sunnis. Their policies are based on rivalry with both trying to contain and combat each other’s impact not only at regional level, but also at international platform. Both sides accused each other of being involved in their internal affairs, supporting terrorist activities. After the United States deal with Iran, Saudi Arab seems to be scared and angry. Israel and Saudi Arab both consider that P5+1 is one of the major mistakes America is making. Providing safe passage to Iran to not only let it do what it has planned, but also bringing it back to the international politics and trade is a dangerous move, they believe.
Saudis know that once Iran is armed with nuclear weapons, it will have obvious strategic advantage. As a result of this threat, Saudis might be interested in going for nuclearization, resulting in an arms race in the highly volatile region. Iran’s nuclear program is not the only concern of Saudis. More intense fear for them would be the new geopolitical trends in the Middle East which are against them. Their regional stature and their domestic security changes are under threat, as United States’ ties with Iran are taking another shape. It seems like Saudi Arab is out of western camp and Iran is getting into it as happened in late 1970s.
Iran’s relations with Syria and now with Washington are alarming from the security and stability perspective of Middle East. Transformation of Iraq from a Sunni to a Shia controlled country has shifted Iraq from Saudi camp to Iranian camp — from ally to enemy. The two countries are developing joint fields, and according to American Enterprise Institute, they are also working mutually on trade grounds. Along with Iran, US also support the new government of Iran, but Saudi Arabia opposes it for being close to Iran. After the withdrawal of U.S., the competition over Iraq may escalate, putting Middle East in a more insecure political situation.
Rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arab is not limited to the Middle East, but also has included areas considered Greater Middle East. During the wake of Arab Spring, Iran initially supported the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as Islamic Awakening. Saudi Arab on the other hand criticized the United States for supporting revolts and removing the former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Iran is trying to get back by having good relations with the new government in Egypt, believing it might turn out to be a potential ally. Saudi Arab on the other hand it trying its best to prevent the relations between Iran and Egypt to turn to normalization.
Reaching of Arab Spring to Bahrain was much more challenging for Saudi Arabia, as it could not tolerate revolt so close to its border. Saudi Arab, scared of Iranian influence, forced the Bahrain elite class not to negotiate with the protestors and send troops to crush them. Saudi Arabia and Iran both played a blame game and compete as always to maintain their influence. Syria, staunch ally of Iran, is also a matter of concern for both. Iran supports Damascus which has long been the breadwinner of weapons, home to the Palestinian Islamic jihad and Hamas. In an attempt to undermine the Iranian-Syrian alliance, Saudi Arabia declared its support for the pro-democracy movement in Syria and was the first Arab county to recall its ambassador from Damascus. If Saudi Arabia wins this particular battle, Iran will likely pursue much more aggressive policies against Saudi Arabia across the region, particularly in Bahrain and Iraq. Failure of two rounds of Geneva talks is itself alarming.
The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia over the issues of geopolitics, energy, and nuclear technology will most likely expand in the upcoming years. In this situation, United States should play a positive role instead of repeating history of helping one and turning against the other. The United States should encourage Iran and Saudi Arabia to cooperate and reduce tensions. The ongoing cold war between Riyadh and Saudi Arab will push the region away from the democracy, resulting in chilling the Arab spring.