Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Iran and Saudi Arabia

The Iran-Saudi Arabia clash is not one between sects and should not divert Arab strategy from its highest goals: restoring stability, national prestige and cooperating on mutual interests, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

To comment on, analyse and evaluate a major flare-up in domestic or international political relations while it is still hot and escalating involves no small degree of risk. It is like walking on molten sand, especially when things move from explanations and accounts to plans and policies. But, frankly, the question at hand brooks no delay.

The recent developments in Saudi-Iranian relations since 2 January, when Riyadh executed 47 terrorists and accomplices, and Iran responded by breaking all international rules pertaining to the protection of diplomatic missions through the horrific attacks against the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and the Saudi Consulate in Mashhad, catapulted these relations to the forefront of the crisis-packed scene in the Middle East.

There are four dimensions to this question, none of which can be ignored. First, Saudi Arabia is a sovereign state and it has every right to take the steps it deems necessary to protect its national security. Second, there is nothing in the Saudi action that suggests sectarian discrimination. The executions were carried out against Sunnis as well as Shia.

Third, regardless of the numbers (43 Sunnis and four Shias), there is nothing that gives Iran or Iranian demonstrators (there are no spontaneous demonstrations in Iran) the right to represent the Shias or to speak on behalf of the Shia sect. It is well known that the Iranian doctrine of “Vilayat-e Faqih” (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist) is an Iranian innovation to which only the Shias who are dependent on that regime for money and arms subscribe.

Fourth, regardless of its sectarian affiliations and ideologies, Iran has always had an expansionist imperialist nature, from antiquity to the modern age. In a way, Iran shares many features of the Russian empire that expanded eastwards and westwards. If communism supplied a form of sectarian ammunition to bolster and increase Russian expansion, Khomeini-style Shiism fulfills this function in the Iranian case.

These four dimensions acquire greater depth and intensity when it comes to the design of policies and their potential impact on the situation in the Middle East as things stood on 1 January this year, which is to say before the beginning of the events connected with the Saudi (and Arab)-Iranian relationship.

It was not as though this region was a huge trouble-free bubble. It has been in turmoil since the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century and it is still seething. In previous articles, I have discussed three causes for what has happened during the past five years: the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring, the US withdrawal from the Middle East and Iranian behaviour in the region.

With regard to the latter, Iran’s determination to expand its geostrategic sphere of influence in the region is as clear as day from Tehran’s blatant imperialist statements and its use of Shia instruments, as is the case in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. From the perspective of Tehran, the Iranian nuclear agreement with the P5+1 is, in actuality, an opportunity for Tehran to catch its breath and establish a more active presence in the region’s problems and dilemmas.

However, Iran has not been the only actor in regional events. Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council countries, have worked to frustrate Iranian moves. It is impossible to understand the huge amounts of financial assistance that Riyadh and its allies have poured into to Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and other “Arab Spring countries” as anything but a political, diplomatic and economic drive to restore stability to the region and to deprive Iran and others of opportunities that only arise in moments of chaos. This policy has achieved tangible successes in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Bahrain, and its effects are still in progress in Syria and Yemen.

When confronting the detrimental effects of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries were prepared to use military force, whether in Syrian and Iraq or in Yemen and Bahrain. They thus demonstrated that there was an Arab element ready to fill the vacuum that resulted from the US withdrawal from and wavering towards the region. This policy achieved tangible successes in Yemen and against the Islamic State (IS) group, which, according to international reports, has lost 40 per cent of its power.

On the Syrian front, the confrontation against Iran focussed on preventing Hizbullah from linking up with the Syrian regime to destroy the Syrian national opposition. On the Yemeni front, its aim was to restore the legitimate Yemeni leadership to its position in Yemen while continuing to force the Houthis to withdraw to the north.

The latest turn in events occurs in the midst of a conflict that has already been playing out in the region. As important as it is, it should not be allowed to divert Arab strategy from its chief goals, namely, restoration of stability in the region, rehabilitation of the prestige and status of the nation state, and protecting the region from Iranian influence.

Realising these aims requires a great amount of wisdom and cool headedness, so as to avert being lured into tactical side battles and away from strategic battles. Quite simply, Iran must not be allowed to construe the narrative of the conflict in the Middle East as a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran and a conflict between Sunni and Shia.

Unfortunately, this narrative has become widespread in the international media and the US media in particular. It is the dominant narrative in research institutes and think tanks in Washington and London. It is one that gives Iran a leadership role in the region and makes it the political and religious representative of Shias. At the same time it is a narrative that is consistent with the common oversimplification in international attitudes toward the Muslims, their supposedly violent nature and their inability to forgive over the course of 14 centuries.

As for our own story, as Arabs, it is the struggle for stability and development, to rebuild what has been destroyed, to cooperate regionally and internationally to eradicate the plague of terrorism in order to safeguard the nation state and to rebuild those that collapsed. Enabling the Arab story to prevail entails policies that are defined by “position statements.”

Accordingly, keeping our priorities squarely focussed on the fight against terrorism (in Syria and Iraq), preventing the dismantlement of the nation state (in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya) and establishing a new order based on equality and citizenship will not only solve the problem of the Shia Arabs (as well as the Alawis, Druze, Yazidis and Houthis), but also the problem of Sunni minorities, such as the Kurds.

In this regard, the Islamic coalition announced by Saudi Arabia (and which we have discussed previously) could be the project to fight for, with force of arms if necessary. Iran cannot compete with this project because it is a government of mullahs. In other words, it is a theocracy to the bone, to the degree that it believes that protecting itself from disintegration and division can only be achieved through the disintegration and division of the entire Arab world.

In brief, the Arab story and project form the spearhead of Arab policy toward Iran. The rest are details. Still, the details will require much patience and wisdom. They also demand avoiding being diverted, knowing how to win over international public opinion and gain allies, and knowing how to eliminate enemies.

Otherwise put, we must not allow a single tree to obscure our view of the forest. The clearer we see the forest, the more resolutely and determinedly we will be able to press forward on the basis of a strong Arab coalition. This is the crux of the matter.

Events in our region have engendered a huge distortion in the balance of power that has given Iran and others opportunities that would never have been available to them otherwise.

The only way to rectify this distortion is through that coalition, although we must bear in mind from the outset that the management of international coalitions is probably no less difficult than the management of international conflicts. The subject has many details but they are unavoidable and they are crucial to those in decision-making positions.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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