A Saudi-Iranian rapprochement that did not seem possible a few months ago is now happening.
Saudi Arabia invited Iran’s foreign minister to visit the country. Hashemi Rafsanjani is also coming. This is good news for the future of a region that has suffered from devastating conflicts since 1980 when the Iran-Iraq war broke out. Yet there are analysts who insist that it will fail, or that this is not the right time for it. And I think they are mistaken.
Let us take, as an example of major analytical mistakes, the prevailing expectations after the U.S.-Iran rapprochement. The Gulf countries in general were angered by that surprising and fast paced rapprochement; and most analysts could only think of how the American step would push away the Gulf States from America, and make them seek other alliances to ensure their security. Some even suggested that the Saudis and the Israelis would form an alliance against Iran. Of course they were all wrong. The U.S. - Gulf alliance is still as secure as ever, and will remain so as long as there is a mutual need between both. For the foreseeable future, the U.S. will consider Gulf oil an integral part of its national security. And the Gulf countries will consider the U.S. the only reliable and dependable ally in the world.
The fact is that Saudi-Iranian strategic interests are much more important that the conflict in SyriaAbdullah Hamidaddin
The reason those analysts made such a mistake about Gulf-U.S. relations is that they looked at them through the prism of issues of conflict, and not through the prism of strategic geo-political realities. They saw the U.S. and the Saudis disagree over Syria and Egypt and then they concluded that Iran will be the last straw. They didn’t see that the balance of power which created the Gulf-Saudi alliance has not shifted for the past 70 years. Lots of things have happened over those seven decades, but the reasons to stay together have remained intact. So regardless of all differences, regardless of all political rhetoric, this is an alliance that will continue.
Now they are making the same mistake. They see the Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict through the prism of regional conflict. Iran’s position in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq and Lebanon are at odds with Saudi interests. They miss looking at it from a geo-political perspective. The Saudi-Iranian conflict was mainly about the Iranian-American conflict. Saudi Arabia has no inherent conflict with the Iranians, on the contrary positive relations with them would benefit the Saudis. But Iran had to first realign its positions in a way that meets the interests of the U.S. and the world. Then the Saudis could step in. And this is exactly what is happening.
Wait and see
Some would say one should wait and see how the matter between the U.S. and Iran develops. Who knows what the Iranians are up to? Who knows if they will live up to their commitments or not? I think that waiting is wrong. There is a new trend in the region, and the most prudent step is to be an early follower, not a late comer. The Saudis can always withdraw if this trend recedes or changes direction.
There will remain issues which the Saudis and the Iranians will never agree on. That’s normal in any relationship between states. But the strategic value of those differences will change. The Syrian tragedy serves as an example. The Iranians would have wanted it to spill over into Jordan to threaten the Saudis. This was when they were head to head against the Americans. Today the Iranians will continue to support Bashar, but will no longer been keen for a spillover. What some of us forget, is that the nuclear deal has a subtext, which is to stop seeking to disrupt Gulf security affairs.
The Saudis and the Iranians will continue to disagree over Syria, but they will no longer use it against each other. The strategic value of Syria has changed. But we need to acknowledge that the only way the Syrian crisis will come to an end is when the Saudis and the Iranians reach an agreement over it. This agreement will not succeed overnight. But it needs to start. And now is a good time.
The fact is that Saudi-Iranian strategic interests are much more important that the conflict in Syria. And for that reason the Saudi-Iran rapprochement will succeed; with a few bumps along the way, eventually we will have warm relations with our neighbor across the river.
Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1