Saudi-Iran tension fuels wider conflict
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
Tehran's politicians and military leaders nowadays boast publicly of the country's military power and regional influence, yet beneath the surface there is a great deal of concern regarding the multiple crises facing Iran. These range from the threat of United Nations sanctions to Iraq's civil war, to growing re-Talibanization of Afghanistan to Lebanon's political unrest, and, increasingly, signs of crisis with the Persian Gulf's other dominant power, Saudi Arabia.
With such an array of national-security headaches, and the
distinct possibility of their getting worse, it is all the more important for Iran to ponder seriously its "crisis avoidance" foreign-policy options. Adding to the complexity is that at the same time, Iran must ensure that internal unrest is not generated as a result of the steps taken. For instance, undue compromise over its nuclear program may precipitate a political crisis. At the same time, though, an inflexible approach that aggravates the nuclear issue could accentuate the differences between the competing foreign-policy tendencies in the Islamic Republic.
Crisis of Iran's perception
With Saudi officials openly complaining of Iran's meddling in Iraq to the detriment of Sunni interests, and sparing no criticism of Iran's role in Lebanon, which teeters on the brink of civil war, there is much need for confidence-building measures between Tehran and Riyadh.
From the Saudis' vantage point, Iran's verbal commitments cannot be trusted anymore and its actions - fomenting trouble in the region - speak louder than words. Iran, on the other hand, complains that the Saudis and other Sunni powers have yet to reconcile themselves to the idea of a Shi'ite-run Iraq. That is why, according to a report in a Saudi newspaper, the Saudis are even pushing for the release of Saddam Hussein and the resurrection of Iraq's Ba'ath Party, to act as an anti-Shi'ite bulwark.
According to a Tehran University political scientist, "If the Saudis had been gassed by Iraq and lost a million people to Saddam's butchery, then they would not be surprised that Iran is angry at their lobbying for Saddam's pardon." Iran has openly wondered why the US is not pressuring Saudi Arabia to stem the tide of its nationals infiltrating Iraq on a daily basis to fight a sectarian war. "And why hasn't Saudi Arabia bothered to respond to Iran's call for a collective security arrangement in the Persian Gulf?" the same professor asked in a recent conversation with the author.
But while Iran says the Saudi criticisms are unfounded, the Saudis are not buying it and, as a result, the stage is set for a sharp deterioration in relations between the "twin pillars" of Persian Gulf geopolitics.
Iran could take steps to reverse the trend, such as by publicly backtracking from recent statements that have conveyed the image of a "domineering" Iran. A case in point is a recent editorial on Baztab.com, a website close to the Revolutionary Guards: "The Saudis are seeking to exclude Iran's domination in the Middle East." Another example: a regional military commander in the province of Khorrassan boasted of Iran's transformation into an "unchallenged power" (ghodrat-e bela monaze) in the Persian Gulf.
Such manifestations of Iran's hegemonic intentions are bound to break rather than build bridges with Persian Gulf neighbors and convey an aggressive foreign-policy orientation not in harmony with official pronouncements. Indeed, in 1991 the presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani unveiled Iran's quest for collective security in the region.
It should not be forgotten that, in the post-September 11, 2001, context, Iran and Saudi Arabia share economic, energy, religious and political concerns, including the Arab-Israeli conflict and terrorism. The countries also play a leading role in both the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC).
Iran and Saudi Arabia established diplomatic relations in 1928. In 1966, King Faisal visited Iran and the (second) Pahlavi Shah visited Saudi Arabia in 1968. By then, the countries had successfully resolved their dispute over the two islands of Farsi and Arabi by agreeing on Iran's possession of Farsi and Saudi Arabia's possession of Arabi. The agreement also did not designate a continental shelf for either island, only territorial waters.
During the Cold War, Iran and Saudi Arabia were commonly concerned about the threat of communism and the expansion of power of the Soviet Union in the Persian Gulf. Also, both were opposed to the radical Arab nationalism led by Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser. This sought to sow divisions between Tehran and Riyadh by labeling the Persian Gulf as the "Arabian Gulf" and the Iranian province of Khuzestan as "Arabestan".
In 1968, Britain's announcement of its decision to vacate its forces from the Persian Gulf culminated three years later in a new geostrategic situation known as the "twin pillar", whereby Iran and Saudi Arabia assumed the primary responsibility for peace and security in the region.
This was in conformity with the foreign-policy approach of the United States during the presidency of Richard Nixon and came to be known as the "Nixon Doctrine". Despite their common security concerns and similar political systems, prior to the Islamic Revolution in 1979, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia were not always harmonious.
Saudi Arabia was concerned over Iran's military modernization and military dominance in the region, and the issue of Bahrain's independence and Iran's reluctant forfeiture of its historical claim to Bahrain was a sour point for some time. Another source of tension was Iran's repossession of the three islands of Abu Moussa, Little Tunb and Big Tunb in 1971, given the competing claims of the United Arab Emirates over these islands.
The 1979 Iranian revolution initially ended decades of friendly ties between the two Persian Gulf countries. Tehran's revolutionary regime accused the Saudis of corruption and of acting as an "American puppet" with which it could not have friendly relations. For its turn, the Saudi government accused its Iranian counterpart of seeking to destabilize the Saudi political system through its "export of revolution" policy.
The Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s worsened Saudi-Iranian relations. Saudi Arabia took sides with Iraq and availed to Baghdad its gigantic financial capability and its impressive influence in the Arab world and elsewhere. At the end of the Iran-Iraq War and the implementation of United Nations Resolution 598, Saudi Arabi welcomed the new developments and King Fahd openly asked the Saudi interior minister to end the propaganda campaign against Iran and to take steps toward resolving problems related to Iranians making the annual hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
Diplomatic relations were restored and embassies were reopened, and ties improved further after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent 1991 Gulf War.
Iran's taking sides with the Kuwaitis and the anti-Iraqi coalition of
the Arab Persian Gulf states helped put Iran's ties with its southern Arab neighbors on a friendly path. In particular, Saudi-Iranian relations, especially their diplomatic ones, began to improve, as reflected by exchanges of high-ranking delegates between the two countries in the 1990s, even though various remaining grievances on both sides prevented their rapid expansion.
For their part, Iran's leaders took steps to reduce tension with Saudi Arabia and its neighbors, as reflected in the March 1997 trip of then-foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati. Saudi Arabia reciprocated by sending a high-level delegation to the 1997 summit of the OIC in Tehran.
That same year, the election of Mohammad Khatami as Iranian president acted as a catalyst in Iranian-Saudi relations. His pursuit of a foreign policy aimed at tension reduction and improving ties with other countries paved the way for a rapid expansion of ties between Iran and its southern Arab neighbors. In particular, it put Iranian-Saudi relations on a stable and friendly path.
Bilateral relations encompassing various fields, including political, economic, educational and security, have since grown at a steady pace. Their well-coordinated policies within OPEC over issues such as oil pricing and production quotas for the member states have clearly reflected the depth of their closeness.
A major indicator of warming relations is their cooperation on security affairs, including regional security. As the largest and the richest Persian Gulf countries, Iran and Saudi Arabia have the capabilities to affect the pace of events in their region. Thus their cooperation is a necessity for ensuring security in the region, which contains more than 60% of the world's proven oil reserves, in addition to a phenomenal amount of gas (Iran and Qatar have the world's second- and the third-largest gas deposits, respectively).
Iran and Saudi Arabia have signed a few security agreements since 1997, including one in April 2002 during the official visit to Iran of Saudi Minister of the Interior Amir Nayef bin Abdul Aziz. In the absence of any official statements on the specifics of the agreements, there is little doubt that they include cooperation on the elimination of extremist and terrorist organizations endangering their stability.
Apart from its obligations under these security agreements, Iran has every reason to seek to eliminate the anti-Iranian Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies. Iran welcomed the Taliban's fall from power in 2001 and has no reason to take a chance on their re-emergence. It is wariness of any Saudi-Pakistani common cause that would create protected zones for the Taliban inside Afghanistan. Similarly, Iran is wary of Saudi Arabia's assertiveness with regard to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which the Saudis have criticized for instigating the latest political crisis in Lebanon.
Should the Lebanese crisis be resolved amicably with the reapportionment of cabinet posts more proportional to the balance of political forces in the country, as favored by not just Hezbollah but also by certain Christian leaders, then the Saudis will be forgiven for their one-sided, blistering criticisms of Iran. Tehran will have shown that it can influence events there in the direction of non-violent resolution of political differences.
On the other hand, the nightmare scenario of Lebanon spiraling into civil war will certainly sharpen Shi'ite-Sunni hostilities pervading the region, no matter what steps Tehran takes to ensure that Iraq does not drown in sectarian conflict. In this respect, pro-Iran Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Shi'ite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, is in Washington for a meeting with President George W Bush. Clearly, Hakim's visit will be regarded in the Persian Gulf as an indirect US dialogue with Iran. Their common fear of (pro-Israel) Turkey's intervention in Iraq is yet another glue that binds Tehran and Riyadh, a relatively neglected issue so far.
Equally important, in removing the walls of distrust between Iran and Saudi Arabia, is an explicit sign from Riyadh that it is not simply concerned with "Sunni" interests in Iraq, in light of a recent pro-Saudi article in the Washington Post by a key Saudi expert, but that rather its concerns are all-inclusive, covering the embattled Shi'ites as well. To that effect, the kingdom's own Shi'ites must be better respected in their civic rights.
Measures to improve Iran-Saudi relations
Several measures could put an immediate halt to the visible deterioration of relations between the two countries, including the following:
An all-inclusive Persian Gulf conference on Iraq, including Iran and Iraq, hosted by the Gulf Cooperation Council. This would be instrumental in closing the cognitive gaps on both sides on the nature of security threats and what to do about them.
A sub-OIC Iraq group inclusive of Iran and Saudi Arabia to be formed to hammer out differences and to explore workable solutions for Iraq, perhaps by fathoming an OIC peacekeeping force for Iraq. Enhanced Iran-Saudi cooperation on Iraq within the OIC framework will help Iran to be perceived as an Islamist rather than a purely Shi'ite power, keen on the welfare of all Muslims irrespective of their sects. (See A role for the OIC in Iraq, Asia Times Online, April 17, 2004.)
A joint Iran-Saudi-Iraq council should meet periodically to discuss security matters and to offer ideas.
In the absence of such initiatives, the likelihood of more sharpened hostile relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is almost a guarantee. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/HL06Ak04.html Dimwit Malevolent Leftvine