Prospects for mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

The Islamic Republic of Iran, since its emergence in 1979, adopted a strategy of exporting the revolution, and remains determined to implement it

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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It was only natural for the international community to condemn the assault on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, which was reminiscent of previous attacks on the U.S. embassy in Tehran after which Americans were hold hostages for 444 days, during the Islamic Revolution. The U.N. Security Council’s condemnation was firm and was not linked to any preambles, given that the principle of not harming diplomatic missions is an absolute one.

In truth, the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had made a mistake when he focused his denunciation in his first statement on Saudi Arabia’s execution of 47 people, including 43 Sunnis and 3 Shiites convicted of inciting terrorism, before mentioning in passing the attack on Saudi diplomatic missions, appearing as though justifying – even if unintentionally – the attack.

The majority of the international community rejects in principle the logic of the death penalty, but with notable exceptions such as the United States. Yet it is the right of Saudi Arabia to consider the U.N.’s positions to be interference in its internal affairs, while it is the right of the secretary general to stress opposition to the death penalty in general.

The Islamic Republic of Iran, since its emergence in 1979, adopted a strategy of exporting the revolution, and remains determined to implement it. This is the battle it has clearly chosen

Raghida Dergham

Riyadh is right when it notes the duplicity in international attitudes, which do not protest more than 1,000 executions carried out by Iran in the same vehemence as their condemnation of Saudi executions. Nevertheless, no capital can ignore the execution of 47 people in one go no matter what the causes of the execution are and regardless of the timing, which is very important.

Now, after Riyadh’s decision to sever diplomatic ties with Tehran to protest what seemed to be an official Iranian blessing of the attack on Saudi embassies, coupled with statements by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei regarding “divine revenge” against Saudi for executing Shiite preacher Nimr al-Nimr (who has a history of inciting violence and terrorism) the question is this: What next? What is the magnitude of the Saudi message?

The Saudi-Iranian confrontation has shaken world capitals, sparking fears of further bloody proxy wars in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon, in addition to aborting all U.N.-led diplomatic efforts seeking solutions to the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

However, concerns this time went beyond proxy wars, to the possible serious implications and dimensions of Iranian meddling in Saudi internal affairs, particularly in the Shiite-dominated Eastern Province of the kingdom close to Bahrain. In Bahrain too, Iranian meddling has taken the form of subversion, incitement, and creation of terror cells though Lebanese Hezbollah and other groups.

There have been several offers for mediation including from Russia, Turkey, Iraq, and Oman. But the United States did not offer to mediate, despite the open lines between Washington and Tehran, so much so that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry contacted Tehran before contacting Riyadh in an odd diplomatic move, given the long-standing alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

Tehran’s motives

Seizing the opportunity to mediate is very important. There is nothing fruitful about an open-ended estrangement without practical goals and specific objectives. Saudi delivered a clear message to Tehran as part of its quest to stop the international scramble to portray Iran as a peace advocate when it is a direct party to the war in Syria alongside the regime – recruiting militias and sending advisors in clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, yet with international consent.

Iran’s reckless non-spontaneous attack on diplomatic missions exposed Tehran’s motives. However, the international community has a weak memory in the time of the U.S. love affair with the Islamic Republic and Obama’s appeasement of Tehran in the name of the nuclear deal.

Therefore, pragmatism is necessary even if national pride is at its height right now, and even if the prevailing trend is saying no voice must be louder than the voice of battle. Thinking calmly is what is needed, no matter how justified being incensed is at the moment.

For this reason, the message sent by Saudi diplomacy by receiving U.N. envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura was wise. Saudi envoy to the U.N. Abdullah al-Mouallemi said Riyadh will not boycott the U.N. because of the secretary general’s positions, and that it would continue to take part in the Vienna talks on Syria despite the estrangement with Tehran, which reflects the cool-headedness and prudence of Saudi diplomacy.

Pragmatism says: Choose your battles so you don’t have to fight too many that would drain you militarily and economically. Pragmatism requires a clear and realistic specification of priorities as well as the determination of the cost of victory and the cost of defeat. Pragmatism, unfortunately, is not always ethical and principled. It's the art of necessity.

The Islamic Republic of Iran, since its emergence in 1979, adopted a strategy of exporting the revolution, and remains determined to implement it. This is the battle it has clearly chosen.

Today, Iran and Russia are in a firm, solid alliance that has proven its robustness in Syria, taking advantage of America’s weakness. The Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis, blessed by China, has worked to guarantee the survival of Bashar al-Assad in power and guarantee Russian and Iranian influence in Assad’s Syria and the Middle East for a long time to come.

On the other hand, Iran is confident of U.S. courting, and wears it like a ring on its finger. Former U.S. President George W. Bush gave Iraq to Iran on a platter of silver, and current U.S. President Barack Obama has gifted Iran his Syria failure. Both U.S. presidents effectively made Iran a regional leader, deliberately turning a blind eye to its violations and terrorist attacks that Washington is aware of in details, and its meddling in the Arab countries with a view to export the Iranian revolution.

Pragmatism requires deep reflection on the meaning and dimensions of the decline of the alliance relationship between the United States and the Gulf Arab states, and even Washington’s willingness to replace the Arab ally with an Iranian ally.

Realistically speaking, it should be recognized that Washington would bless a victory by Iran, Russia and Hezbollah in Syria. Realistically, it must be taken into account that Israel has returned to supporting Bashar al-Assad remaining in power, and that its relation with Iran have become increasingly one of appeasement if not cooperation in the fight in Syria under the title of combatting Sunni terrorism led by ISIS and similar groups. Realistically speaking, one should remember the terror attacks of 9/11 has a cost Arabs must bear, while also recalling that Arab oil is no longer an American need.

Faced with this reality, it is necessary to do a cost-benefit analysis for any measures going forward, in light of the crises and conflicts in the Arab region.

Internal security

Clearly, the absolute priority is for the internal security of all Gulf states. But clarifying the red lines requires both an advancement strategy and an exit strategy, and awareness of the strengths of the other side.

Saudi national security is the subject of unanimous agreement in the GCC, representing Gulf national security. If Russia or Oman, for example, want to act as mediators between Saudi and Iran, they must be asked to seek serious Iranian pledges with U.S. guarantees to cease incitement and interference in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and in Bahrain. This is an absolute priority that the GCC must clarify, and this is the battle that it must choose.

The second battle is in Yemen, which is also part of Saudi national security. Iran has chosen to fight a proxy Yemen with Saudi Arabia to turn it into a quagmire for the Saudis, who would then be drained in their own “Vietnam” there. Iran itself has managed to dodge drowning in its own Vietnam in Syria, thanks to Russia’s U.S.-sanctioned intervention there.

There is no international partner undertaking in Yemen what Russia is undertaking in Syria, so there is no alternative to seeking an exit strategy for Yemen. As it seems, this is now only possible through the diplomatic efforts led by U.N. Envoy Ould Cheikh Ahmed.

Syria, unfortunately, is not a battle that can be won. The international community has decided not to fight a regime that has massacred its people, but to fight ISIS even if this requires an alliance with the “devil”. Syria will remain a dark stain on the world’s conscience, and a wound that will prevent celebrating any victory no matter how much some might delude themselves into believing otherwise.

Pragmatism requires counting the losses and choosing the battles. Pragmatism teaches that nothing lasts forever and that today’s loss could be an investment in tomorrow, if prudence rather than emotion is pursued.

The ongoing Islamic Revolution in Iran has borne fruit for the mullahs in Tehran, but it has cost Iran dearly over four decades of isolation and missed prosperity and progress. This is not a victory.

By contrast, the Gulf in the past four decades developed and built astonishing cities, and integrated itself with the world despite some restrictions on freedoms.

In the end, history does not stop with a U.S. administration. Loyalty is not something U.S. policies are known for, but rather, abandonment and betrayal of allies is the reputation Washington has earned for itself. Yet, emotional and reactive haphazardness must be avoided in Saudi-Iranian relations.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Jan. 8, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.

Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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