Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1256, (30 July - 5 August 2015)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1256, (30 July - 5 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Jockeying for position

Tehran and Riyadh appeared locked in a high stakes yet low intensity struggle, not so much over who will lead the region as who will have the greater influence over it, Dina Ezzat reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

On Sunday, US Secretary of State John Kerry will be in Cairo to head his country’s delegation for the resumed round of the Egyptian-American Strategic Dialogue. “The Iran file”, as Egyptian diplomats call the Iranian-West framework agreement on Tehran’s nuclear programme, will be a top issue in the talks the top diplomat will hold with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukri, as well as with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, who is set to receive the visiting US official.

Kerry, according to expectations in Cairo, will seek to pass on the message that Washington has been trying to relay to its top Arab strategic ally, Riyadh, for the past few weeks: the framework agreement between the West and Iran is no carte blanche for Tehran to exercise regional hegemony or overstep its regional role.

“Certainly not at the expense of Saudi regional comfort—for sure not,” said a Cairo-based Western diplomat.

She added: “The message the West is trying to send to Arab allies is that Iran is coming back to the region, but is not coming back to take control of the region or to challenge any particular regime, as the Saudis seem to fear.”

Saudi Arabia has been anything but reserved in its unease at the nuclear deal and is making no secret that it is opposed to the agreement and that it has worked with all possible likeminded countries in and out of the Middle East to block the deal.

In statements during a joint press conference in Riyadh with visiting EU High Commissioner for Foreign Relations Frederica Mogherini Monday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubair said that his country is not going to turn a blind eye to what he qualified as “hostile” Iranian statements and acts against Arab Gulf countries.

During the talks with Mogherini, who was expected to arrive in Tehran Tuesday, Al-Jubair was ready with a long list of demands—according to Cairo-based European diplomats, “a bit exaggerated”—Riyadh is expecting in terms of reassurances about Tehran’s “regional intentions”.

The Saudi demands are not just about the Gulf but also about Iraq and Yemen. “These two countries are perceived by the Saudis as the backyard of the Saudi-dominated Arab Gulf”, according to an Asian diplomat. Syria is also on the Saudi list.

The top issue for the Saudis today, Cairo-based foreign diplomats say, is Yemen. The Saudis want the Iranians to end their support to the Houthis in Yemen—“Now and not later. And with no conditions,” according to the same Asian diplomat.

This is the message that Al-Jubair has been conveying to every interlocutor, including Shoukri during a recent visit by the top Egyptian diplomat to Saudi Arabia.

During a meeting that Al-Jubair is scheduled to have with Kerry next week, following the visit of the US secretary of state to Cairo, Al-Jubair is expected to stress his country’s unease with the commitments that Riyadh received from Tehran, through the top American diplomat, on a more compromising stance on Yemen, to help end the war there and establish a regime that would be composed mostly of Saudi allies with a limited share to the Houthis.

Despite the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is not stopping its war that is designed essentially to undermine pro-Iranian (mostly but not exclusively Shia) political groups and fighters in favour of Saudi-allied Yemeni factions. Al-Jubair told Mogherini, European sources say, that Iran is playing games to “fool the region, but we shall not succumb to these bazaar tricks”.

Al-Jubair is also focused this week in diplomatic talks on Bahraini espionage accusations against Iran. He is also talking about Saudi anger at aggressive statements made a few days ago in Baghdad against Riyadh.

Riyadh is convinced that Tehran is using its allies in Yemen to strengthen the Shia “component” to turn Yemen into an Iranian ally rather than the Saudi ally, contrary to what has been the case for a long time.

“This is the Iranian game now; Iran is using its access to limited players in several countries around the region to build anti-Saudi alliances. And of course the ultimate purpose is to build a wide Shia coalition that would also include Shia groups in some Arab countries, now Bahrain and then Saudi Arabia next,” according to the remarks of a Saudi source in Cairo.

The Saudi regime is also apprehensive of the new strength that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad might be gaining through a reintegrated Tehran. It is also unhappy, as Al-Jubair plainly told his Egyptian counterpart, with the openness Cairo has been showing towards the Syrian president, which includes plans to send a press delegation to visit Damascus in the coming weeks and possibly to meet with top aides of President Assad, or even—as one informed press source said—“President Assad himself”.

Riyadh has been, to the discontent of Cairo, escalating cooperation with and support for Ankara’s military efforts to support anti-Assad battling factions.

The basic Saudi mission today is to use every diplomatic trick in the book to eliminate Iranian influence—first in Yemen and then in Syria.

“The Saudis seem to realise that Iraq is a tougher challenge, although they managed a few months ago to use their influence with the Americans to remove (Iraq’s former prime minister and now vice president) Nouri Al-Maliki who had recently attacked Riyadh as being a stronghold terror supporter,” said a Riyadh-based Arab diplomat.

Meanwhile, Iran has been sending “words of reassurance” about its wish to cooperate and not to get into confrontations with anyone in the Arab Gulf.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, deemed by Arab and European diplomatic sources as a very skilful diplomat, this week started a tour to visit Tehran’s top Arab ally, Baghdad.

The visit of Zarif is designed, according to one regional diplomat, to ease pressure that the Saudis are putting on Tehran.

The regional bras de fer between Tehran and Riyadh will also include Lebanon, where pro-Iran Hizbullah leader Hassan Nassrallah said Tuesday that the “Shia” have to be at the forefront of the Arab war against Israeli occupation. It must also include North Africa, to which both Riyadh and Tehran are reaching out with lucrative cooperation initiatives.

“Inevitably, we will see more of the same—with each side making a few gains now and then, here and there—during the next year until a new president is fully operating in the White House. Then there might be a few gradual changes,” said a Washington-based Arab diplomat.

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