SAUDI-IRAN RAPPROCHEMENT: FINALLY, SOME GOOD NEWS
RIYADH and Tehran have had a turbulent relationship for four decades now. However, they were not always at loggerheads with each other, in fact, they collaborated prior to the 1979 revolution. The two countries were allies and strongly opposed Communism and the Soviet Union, cooperating bilaterally and with the United States during much of the Cold War. They also came together against Arab radicals like Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. The United States “twin pillars” strategy, called upon the two countries to be the custodian of Western interests in the oil rich area. Although Iran was the bigger ‘twin’, which was resented by the Saudi side, however, it was not an impediment to the collaboration.
The Iranian revolution was a huge blow to the relationship. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was an inspiration to many radical Shia groups in the Arab world, but more importantly, Khomeini had a pan-Islamic message that said, “Monarchy is incompatible with Islam”. What deteriorated the relationship more, was that Saudi Arabia was convinced that the Iranian intelligence was in part behind the Khobar Tower bombings of 1996 that killed both U.S. military personnel and Saudi nationals. The Iraqi invasion by the U.S. in 2003 further aggravated the situation followed by executions by Saudi Arabia including that of a Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. This damaged the relationship beyond repair. It was sectarianism, nationalism and a power struggle over influence in the region that manifested itself into fatal proxy wars, shattering peace and unity of the Arab world. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia heavily invested in exploiting each other’s vulnerabilities. It reached a level of ridiculing each other’s factions/beliefs publicly.
What has probably led to the rapprochement post forty plus years of bitterness is perhaps the realization on the Saudi side that Iranian resilience has given it an upper hand in regional conflicts despite all efforts to rollback its clout. The recent realignment of global politics has only strengthened it more. The United States is not viewed with favour in Saudi Arabia anymore, in fact, it is seen as undependable for good reason. The US did not take any tangible action, when Iran took out a number of Saudi oil facilities in 2019. Multiple drones or missiles had struck Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq facility, causing massive damage, and crippling the nation’s production of 5.7 million barrels of crude oil per day. In addition to that, the US calendar and not condition based, unceremonious withdrawal from Afghanistan and the rising US-China rivalry may have led to this rethink in Saudi Arabia. The festering conflict with Iran has an unsustainable political, social and economic cost for Saudi Arabia, plus the independent trajectory taken by countries like Qatar has also contributed to this newfound accommodation.
On the other hand, Iranian policy of defiance of the West and Saudi Arabia has taken an overwhelming toll on Iran’s economy which is becoming increasingly difficult to bear. It manifests itself in frequent anti-government protests, lowest voter turnout in the history of the country in the recent elections and last but not the least the strangulating grip of sanctions has led Iran to think more pragmatically. Its improved relations with Saudi Arabia gives it a foot back into the comity of nations and eases its diplomatic isolation. According to William Zartman thesis of ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ where the parties to the conflict may feel the pain of mutually hurting stalemate at the same time but not necessarily at the same level. They both calculate the cost benefit analysis of conflict and peace and come to the realization that they pay heavily and gain nothing by being in a state of constant conflict. In some way, coming to the ripe moment to resolve the conflict and this may have three elements: gains and losses, deadlock and the realization of the deadlock by the parties. Saudi Arabia and Iran may have reached their ripe moment.
Commentators are of the view that Beijing sponsoring the deal has made it more viable because it benefits from the presence of “two-factor authentication”. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the one hand and China on the other. China has also pledged $300 billion for investment in Iran over 25 years and is its biggest trade partner, giving China the leverage to make Iran stand by this deal. The young leadership of Saudi Arabia and his pragmatism also adds an element of stability and sustainability to the construct. This seems like a “win-win”.
Barack Obama in an interview in 2016 had said that Iran and Saudi Arabia need to learn to “share the neighbourhood”. However, President Barack Obama failed to de-escalate the conflict by trying to get the two sides to share. President Donald Trump’s strategy of taking a confrontational approach with Iran while giving Saudi Arabia unconditional support had further exacerbated the situation. Thus, the Obama-Donald conflict on how to handle Iran and Saudi Arabia complicated the scenario further. The United States could neither deter Tehran nor restrain Riyadh. The fact that eventually several years later, China brokered the deal is indicative of the new emerging world order that may become the norm.
Amy Hawthorne, Deputy Director for Research at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a non-profit group in Washington said that “The United States could not have brokered such a deal right now with Iran specifically, since they have no relations. But in a larger sense, China’s prestigious accomplishment vaults it into a new league diplomatically and outshines anything the U.S. has been able to achieve in the region since Biden came to office. ”The US has both downplayed and welcomed the deal. “If this deal can be sustained — regardless of what the interest was or who sat down at the table — if it can be sustained, and the war in Yemen can end, and Saudi Arabia doesn’t have to continually try to defend itself against attacks from the Houthis who are funded and supported by Iran, in the end we welcome that,” said John Kirby, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications.
Finally, the Iran-Saudi Arabia peace deal will have major implications for Pakistan, the country for decades has been an arena for proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran. The normalization of ties between the two countries presents a huge opportunity for the country, it can now actually maintain balanced diplomatic ties with both states, which was just a lot of words and a pipedream until recently. Pakistan’s former representative to the UN Dr Maleeha Lodhi said, “For Pakistan, this deal opens up new diplomatic and economic opportunities. For decades, Pakistan has followed a policy of balancing relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, treading very carefully between a strategic ally and a neighbour. Now the rapprochement between the two former rivals means diplomatic space opens up for Islamabad to consider new initiatives and also strengthen ties with Iran”. The economic dividends can also be very impressive, something Pakistan needs desperately. Riyadh had cut formal ties with Tehran in 2016 and this deal may potentially lead to a level of regional stability not seen in over 40 years. This China mediated peace deal seems like a win-win so far, not only for the Kingdom and Iran, but for the region, global market and a critical global need i.e. energy-security.