Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Tehran and Riyadh tread cautiously

In its second week, the Saudi-Iranian row has dwindled to a war of words as Tehran anticipates the lifting of sanctions, Amira Howeidy reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

While the vast majority of Riyadh’s allies recalled their ambassadors to Iran in response to the mob attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran last week, the fallout for now is diminishing to verbal escalation.

Having demonstrated their mutual impatience with each other’s foreign policy and reach last week by rushing to diplomatic severance, the key regional rivals appear to be less interested in other forms of confrontation, such as military confrontation, which are not in their respective interests on the one hand and may not be realistic practically on the other.

An emergency ministerial level meeting at the Arab League called by Saudi Arabia on Sunday produced a strongly-worded statement endorsed by the vast majority of member states, except Lebanon where Iran ally Hizbullah is influential, and Syria whose membership is suspended. The statement condemned Iran for failing to protect the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, which was set on fire by protestors. Riyadh’s consulate in the Iranian city of Mashhad was also attacked in response to Saudi Arabia’s execution 2 January of 47 people including prominent Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Al-Nimr.

Sunday’s Arab League statement expressed “full solidarity” with Saudi Arabia’s efforts to confront what it described as Iran’s “hostile and provocative” actions in the region.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Adel Al-Jubair, said the embassy attack is a reflection of Tehran’s policy “of interfering in Arab affairs and inciting sectarianism” and security instability.

The statement comes a week after Riyadh cut ties with Iran, a move that was mirrored by Sudan, Eretria and Djibouti. With the exception of Oman, all Gulf States withdrew their ambassadors from Tehran, with the United Arab Emirates that has billions of dollars worth of trade ties with Iran  reducing its level of diplomatic representation. Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia condemned the embassy attack.

Iran’s leaders, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, condemned Al-Nimr’s execution although he equated Tehran’s ally, Bashar Al-Assad, with Saudi rulers, both of whom he attacked in fiery speeches in support of anti-government protests when the Arab Spring revolutions started in 2011. Tehran has since attempted to take a few steps back, first by formally apologising for the embassy attack and most recently backtracking on its previous decision to name a street after Al-Nimr.

In a presser at the Arab League, Al-Jubair gave Iran a two-month ultimatum to change its policy and to denounce terrorism before Riyadh takes other steps he did not name.

“Iran supports sectarianism and terrorism in the Arab world,” he said, “This has been happening for four decades.”

In the same presser, Abdullah bin Zayed, the Emirati foreign minister, accused Iran of interfering in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon which all have sizeable Shia populations and where Tehran exercises varying levels of influence. “What kind of a neighbour does Iran want to be?” he asked.

Despite moving towards containment, Tehran has continued the verbal row with Riyadh. On Thursday, Iran accused Saudi Arabia of deliberately attacking its embassy in the Yemeni capital Sanaa by airstrike, a claim that residents and witnesses disputed and that was denied by the Saudi-led coalition.

Unverified images of the embassy circulating on social media showed the embassy’s façade to be intact. The incident highlighted the dangerous repercussions of the Iranian-Saudi fallout in conflict areas, primarily Yemen,  Saudi Arabia’s underbelly  and to a lesser degree Syria, where their proxy war is translated to a rising death toll of innocent civilians, internal displacement, lack of basic health services and food supplies.

According to the United Nations, 2,800 civilians were killed in Yemen in the past 10 months, the vast majority by coalition airstrikes.

Saudi Arabia launched a joint military campaign with other Arab states mainly from the Gulf  in Yemen last March to reinstate President Abd Rabo Mansour Hadi who was ousted by the Houthi group who embrace the Zaidi faith, an offshoot of Shia Islam, and are thus viewed as Iran’s allies. The campaign, which began almost three months after the new Saudi monarch, King Salman, succeeded his brother King Abdullah who died in January, is led by Mohamed bin Salman, the new monarch’s 30-year-old son and minister of defence.

According to observers, the military campaign signalled a new and aggressive Saudi approach to regional issues a reflection of the leading role it envisions for itself in the Arab world which, from a Saudi perspective also shared by other Gulf States, Iran is violating and threatening.

In Syria, Iran has been supporting Bashar Al-Assad’s regime with the help of Hizbullah while Saudi Arabia has been supporting rebel groups seeking to remove him from power. Almost a quarter of a million Syrians have died since 2011.

An op-ed by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif published in The New York Times on Monday accused the kingdom of sponsoring regional and global terrorism and attempting to sabotage the deal with Iran to limit its nuclear programme in exchange for easing sanctions.

“Following the signing of the interim nuclear deal in November 2013, Saudi Arabia began devoting its resources to defeating the deal, driven by fear that its contrived Iranophobia was crumbling,” he wrote. “Today, some in Riyadh not only continue to impede normalisation but are determined to drag the entire region into confrontation,” Zarif added.

Iran’s top diplomat didn’t issue a counter ultimatum to Riyadh, but concluded his piece with a message to the kingdom: either stop supporting extremists or play a constructive role in promoting regional stability.

With Tehran’s eye on the lifting of sanctions, which is expected “soon” according to European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini, exacerbating the fallout with Riyadh does not seem a priority for Iran at the moment.

“I can tell you that my expectation is that this day (the lifting of sanctions) could come rather soon. The implementation of the agreement is proceeding well,” Mogherini said on Monday, only a few days after US Secretary of State John Kerry said relief of sanctions was impending.

In a live speech broadcast on state TV, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was hopeful and said he expected the sanctions to be lifted “in the next few days”.

Lifting the sanctions would give Tehran access to billions of dollars in frozen assets and oil revenue. A major oil and gas producer, Iran will be re-entering the global market, which could ultimately affect the existing oversupply of oil and further drive down prices. Crude oil prices slumped from $115 a barrel in 2014 to less than $32 this month.

Major oil producers have been affected, including Saudi Arabia that announced plans to cut government spending after plunging prices resulted in a record annual budget deficit of nearly $98 billion.

Riyadh’s economic reform plans have since been the subject of debate by experts who are divided on their efficacy.

How Saudi Arabia will accommodate the repercussions of its economic challenges at home remains to be seen, but a stronger post-sanctions Iran is unlikely to end the regional rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh anytime soon.

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