What worries Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran?

Dr. Naser al-Tamimi

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During recent days, U.S. and Iranian dialogue has dominated international headlines. While the media fixates on Israel and Saudi Arabia and their possible reaction, other players inside Iran have no less at stake. Indeed, Iran’s internal dynamics are just as important to what is happening on the regional and international levels. President Rowhani needs to take into account the Iranian people’s high expectations and contend with a relatively conservative parliament. By contrast, the conservatives and those with vested interests will be watching closely to see how developments unfold. This complex picture inside Iran accompanied by the Iranian people’s high expectations and regional tensions could complicate any outcome.

Limited Time

The Reformist movement in Iran does not have much time; President Rowhani has to offer sooner rather than later a plan that can convince the United States and other major powers that Tehran’s nuclear program is peaceful. The real test will come as talks between the P5 +1 group of countries (the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) and Iran are resumed. Concrete decisions will have to be made on what to demand from Iran and what to offer in return. However, President Obama stressed that the West has to “test diplomacy.” He also indicated a willingness to allow some time for further diplomacy but not much. Obama said in an interview with the Associated Press, in reply to a question about the U.S. intelligence assessment of Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons; “Our assessment continues to be a year or more away.”

The Iranian president’s mission will not be easy, as the situation reaches a critical stage: it is make or break

Dr. Naser al-Tamimi

Perhaps one of the main issues facing Rowhani is the hinted disapproval from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, regarding the 15-minute phone call between Rowhani and Obama, in an apparent response to criticism by conservative factions. The Iranian president’s mission will not be easy, as the situation reaches a critical stage: it is make or break. Nevertheless, the failure of negotiations with the United States may have a catastrophic outcome for Iran; it strengthens the hawks inside the United States and Israel. In addition, the Economist Intelligence Unit noted that “with the economy languishing and the presence of high inflation and unemployment among a young and growing population, the risk of unrest will become more acute and probably more difficult for the authorities to contain.”

Regional context

Regionally, the situation in Syria may be sliding towards a more dangerous game. Last month, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal warned that the renewed emphasis on diplomacy with Assad would allow him to “impose more killing.” Indeed, the U.S.-Iran rapprochement could push the GCC countries to revisit their posture on Syria. The Gulf states may also start acting independently and accelerate supplying sophisticated weapons to the Syrian rebels to change the balance of powers on the grounds. If there is no political settlement in the horizon, Tehran will be concerned that the situation could get out of control. In this regard one senior adviser to the Iranian government told the Financial Times: “If such hostilities are not contained, Saudis will continue doing their best to sabotage any nuclear deal between Iran and the U.S.. Regional tensions will not ease if Iran and Saudi Arabia do not reach some kind of agreement over Syria and Iraq.” Even worse, U.S. air strikes on Syria still might take place if the ongoing diplomatic initiative to compel Assad to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal founders. Either of these latter eventualities would unleash very serious consequences on an already stressed Iranian economy.

Iraq is another vital issue. Despite the concerns that the Iranian rapprochement with the U.S. reinforces Tehran’s hand in Iraq; Tehran remains worried. Many Iranian policy makers fear that the improved relations with the United States could curtail the Iranian influence in Iraq. The Iraqi nationalist and secular forces within the Sunnis and Shiites communities could strengthen and increase the likelihood of finding common ground between them, including reining in the Iranian interference inside Iraq. In addition, Syria’s spill-over probably complicates Tehran’s task in Iraq.

Strategic risks

As the military tension in the Gulf region eases, the price of oil could be affected. This issue, if accompanied with the increased oil production in the United States, Iraq and the return of Libyan oil followed by pumping Iran’s oil to the world markets, may considerably increase downward pressure on world oil prices. Nevertheless, significant decline in crude prices will “bite” the Iranian economy more than the other producers. In addition, Iran’s economic opening to the outside world undoubtedly gives the Iranian economy a boost; however this openness may bring with it losers from within Iran itself. There are many forces from within and outside the Iranian regime that have benefited greatly from the sanctions, thus the “economic openness” will be bitterly opposed by vested interests.

Above all, the rapid pace of events since Iranian President Hassan Rowhani took office this past summer has significantly increased the possibility of a successful negotiation on Iran’s nuclear program. At the strategic level, these developments could prompt China and Russia to reassess their strategic calculations in the region, and work to adopt a hedging policy towards Tehran.

In short, it is true that Rowhani has considerable popular support in order to reach a deal with the United States, but the internal and regional dynamics makes his options limited and complex.


Dr Naser al-Tamimi is a UK-based Middle East analyst, and author of the forthcoming book “China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance?” He is an Al Arabiya regular contributor, with a particular interest in energy politics, the political economy of the Gulf, and Middle East-Asia relations. The writer can be reached at: Twitter: @nasertamimi and email: [email protected]

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