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The next great confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran

Jamal Khashoggi

Published: Updated:

At the end of the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Kuwait this week, Gulf leaders welcomed “new orientations from the Iranian leadership towards the GCC countries.” Who said there have been new orientations from Iran? It is President Hassan Rowhani, along with his Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, who has overwhelmed GCC countries with their kind words, smiles and promises. This is indeed an old pragmatic policy: divide and conquer.

I am sure that the Saudi delegation was not happy to participate in drafting this statement in the final communiqué; Saudi Arabia knows that it will bear alone the coming confrontation with Iran, which will take place in Syria. Qatar alone will support Saudi Arabia in this confrontation, in light of a paradox reflecting the “realpolitik” era that will prevail in GCC countries during this next phase.

I believe that Saudi Arabia is the country that insisted that the above statement should be followed by this sentence: “in the hope that these [new orientations] will be followed by concrete steps in order to reflect positively on peace, security and stability of the region.”

Good intentions towards the Syrian people?

The Iranian “realpolitik” emerged two days after the statement through the Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammad Ali Jafari, who said that “Syria represents the front line of the Islamic Republic,” and they do not deny the existence of Revolutionary Guards there “as consultants providing support according to an official request by an internationally recognized regime.” He added that they will do everything they can to defend the regime there “whatever the cost.”

Zarif won’t be so clear, but he will surely rub his hands, smile and say that they have good intentions towards the Syrian people, who have the right to choose the regime that represents them without anyone’s intervention, and that they have to all go together to Geneva to reach a peaceful solution.

At the same time, several planes loaded with sophisticated Iranian weapons will be landing and unloading sophisticated weapons to support a regime that is killing its own people. Zarif will never admit it, but he would rather add “we are fighting extremist groups in Syria, and the countries of the region must cooperate with us for their own sake.” According to this, Saudi Arabia must not meet and negotiate with Iran before achieving a real victory in Syria, which would reposition the situation to the kingdom’s advantage.

However the picture is getting more complicated in a way that provokes Saudi Arabia more and more; the United States and Britain have announced one day after Jafari’s statements that they have stopped sending non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels; their aid did not include weapons anyway, but rather only military clothes, shoes and communication devices.

Non-lethal aid suspended

Despite this, the aid was a useful supply line that many were hoping would be increased. They were hoping that the Syrian opposition receives military aid that can change the status-quo of the situation in favor of the revolution.

The reason why the aid was stopped was that the Islamic Front seized the non-military stores that were managed by the Free Syrian Army, which began to lose their positions on the ground at a rapid pace with the growth of Islamic factions. The U.S. knows well that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have already started to help these factions – unfortunately without great coordination between the three countries, – recognizing that these factions have become the most efficient power on the ground. These factions alone have the ability to stop the military and ideological progress of the Islamic state in Iraq and the Levant and the al-Nusra Front, which are getting closer to moderate Islamic forces.

The U.S. actions revealed the collapse of the Coordination Office that was founded over a year ago in Antioch and Oman by the forces that are interested in supporting the Syrian revolution. These actions have probably reinforced Saudi Arabia’s doubts about the true intentions of the U.S. especially in Syria: the U.S. will most probably urge for a peaceful solution at the Geneva 2 peace conference and the Saudis and the Iranians will cooperate to impose this solution on the Syrian people! This idea is against history and against the desire of the people who want freedom.

The statement from Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a professor at Princeton University and a politician who is close to the emerging reform forces in Iran, has promoted the idea I mentioned above. He delivered his speech at the Manama Dialogue forum in Bahrain last week with confidence, saying: “Iran and Saudi Arabia must recognize their natural influence, role and interests in the region, which covers the respect that each country deserves. The United States must support the Saudi-Iranian relations that are free from controversy”.

Seyed Mousavian takes pride in his friendship with the Saudi kingdom, and he is proud that he was a messenger of peace between King Abdullah and President Rafsanjani in the mid-nineties. He is proud of the successful culmination of his efforts, in addition to the peace and cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which according to him lasted until 2005. After the lecture, I asked him about what he specifically meant by natural influence for the two countries and whether he meant that Saudi Arabia should stop supporting the Syrian revolution so that Syria would be left for Iran, and Iran would abandon other countries that fall within the “natural influence” of the Saudi kingdom. I believe that this theory is against history progress and the independence of nations and peoples, and that it has an “imperial” tendency that Saudi Arabia has not experienced although Iran has known it for more than 3000 years.

His answer was vague, and this is an art mastered by the Iranian negotiator. He spoke about Iran’s power and how it is distinguished by its rich and wise history compared to the GCC countries – as he said – and that Iran’s population (80 million) is equivalent to three times the Gulf Arab states populations combined. He added that Iran has excellent human resources on the education, training and qualified workforce levels, and that 500 thousand Iranians live and work in the UAE. He added that there are strong ties between millions of Arabs and Iranians on both sides of the Gulf, and that they can influence the Arab and Muslim countries such as Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. He said that the Iranian military powers and experiences in the field of nuclear power and missiles, and its self-sufficiency in the defense industry along with its extension on the Gulf coast more than any other Gulf country, makes it a key actor today and in the future in the Gulf, the Middle East and beyond.

He concluded his speech that can be summed up with “give us Syria,” nevertheless, the kingdom cannot afford it because in addition to the right of the Syrian people to freedom, Syria is a natural and completing extension to the Arabian Peninsula, among which Saudi Arabia is the most important country. Even if it falls under Iranian influence after Iran’s victory there, it would amount to a state of “mandate” with the existence of a weak regime that owes its existence to Iran’s efforts. “Iranian Syria” will be threatening the Arab national security as a whole, not just Saudi Arabia.

So, this is the great confrontation between the Saudi and Iranian “sisters” on the Syrian “sister’s” territories. Then, these “sisters” will sit at the negotiating table and the conqueror will set the reconciliation terms.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Dec. 14, 2013.

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Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.

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