Is de-escalation of Saudi-Iranian tensions possible?

The accusations, threats and general tone in many of the reactions from officials and public figures in the region to the awful stampede in Mecca on Sept. 24 were politics at its worse. Dismay and calls for accountability were inevitable following one of the worst accidents in the history of the hajj, with over 700 people killed, but the moment deserved far more soberness.

The way that Saudi-Iranian tensions were brought to the fore over the incident gave the dangerous idea there are no reasonable limits to political and strategic rivalry. Writing after the tragedy, Abdulrahman al-Rashed, one of the most prominent and internationally respected Saudi journalists, said his country and Iran have presently reached “the highest level of tension” since the Iran-Iraq war ended in Aug. 1988.

Not irremediable

The calls for serious diplomatic engagement between the Saudi and Iranian leaderships, as a key step to improving relations and a path to address regional turmoil, have become frequent. Observers see bilateral tensions as a result primarily of the sectarian outlook of the two leaderships. This reading ignores a few important facts.

First, with Iraq (the other big power in the Gulf) close to disintegration, an intensification of the strategic competition between Saudis and Iranians was to an extent inevitable. It also ignores how before the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in Iran, Saudis and Iranians kept a working relationship despite the rivalry on a few fronts.

The latest news from Yemen regarding a written commitment from the Houthis to the seven-point peace plan brokered by the United Nations during talks in Muscat has to be treated with caution.

Manuel Almeida

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, understood well the importance of dialogue with Riyadh, to the annoyance of hard-line factions in Tehran. Framing this rivalry as a tit-for-tat sectarian battle equally overlooks the existence of a clear hegemonic project by Iranian hardliners and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). They pay little respect to the already weakened rules of state sovereignty in the region.

This radical ideology and view of the region is no longer shared by all political factions with influence in Tehran. The way Major-General Qassem Suleimani, one of the biggest champions of Iran’s aggressive and intrusive military adventures in neighboring states, has been brought under closer oversight could be a sign of that.

However, the powerful hardliners need an external enemy, and with the current hands-off U.S. approach to Middle Eastern crises, plus the Iran nuclear deal, they are short of enemies. Saudi Arabia becomes an obvious target. As Rashed put it, “for those acquainted with the situation, it’s not difficult to understand the reasons of Saudi concerns over Iran.”

Where to begin?

If any progress is to be achieved in getting Saudis and Iranians to talk meaningfully on how to reduce tensions and address some of the region’s crises, pragmatism is needed. It should be assumed that bilateral relations will not improve substantially in the near future, not with some many important differences to be bridged. A minimalist goal of basic confidence-building is already plenty to aim for.

Where could this constructive engagement begin? Addressing a specific issue such as the war in Syria and its devastating impact would be the obvious place to start. However, not only is the conflict extremely complex, the Russian military intervention in aid of the Syrian regime has provided Iran with new room to keep sidelining a compromise that could potentially accommodate much of the Syrian opposition.

Contrary to what a few pundits have argued, for Iran to share with Russia its influence over the Syrian regime is an affordable price to pay for keeping its foothold in Damascus. If, tragically, the Syrian crisis gives the impression of getting worse before it gets better, could Yemen be a place to start? Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif has been vocal about Tehran’s willingness to support a political solution in Yemen.

Concessions are needed for confidence-building, and Yemen is where the Iranian government could compromise if it is serious about its intentions and has enough political power at home to push for such a compromise.

For the Saudis, the prospect of a Hezbollah-like militia controlling much of north Yemen and the government in Sanaa is a red line, and Tehran knows it. For Iran, neither support for the Houthis or Yemen as a whole constitute a key priority. At most, it keeps Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, which back the Syrian opposition, busy with a tough and expensive problem to solve.

The latest news from Yemen regarding a written commitment from the Houthis to the seven-point peace plan brokered by the United Nations during talks in Muscat has to be treated with caution. It is not the first time the Houthis indicate their willingness to comply with the terms of a political solution while their actions on the ground tell otherwise.

This time, however, it comes in the context of important gains by pro-government forces and the coalition. The soft talk of Iranian officials on Yemen has also contrasted with the ongoing attempts to deliver advanced weaponry to the rebels.

Throughout the current conflict, most observers have underestimated the influence Iran and its revolutionary ideology have played in the rise of the Houthis. Given the negative Iranian role, Tehran should not expect much from Riyadh in return for any positive contribution to a political solution in Yemen.

However, dropping support for the Houthis’ unrealistic and destructive plans could send a signal and mark the beginning of a less negative phase in Saudi-Iranian relations, while contributing to Yemen’s stabilization.

Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:48 - GMT 06:48
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