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Iran-Saudi Relations: Time for Active Diplomacy
What follows is an interview conducted by Mosallas (Triangle) magazine with Kayhan Barzegar, Director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies and a faculty member at the Science and Research Branch of the Islamic Azad University in Tehran.
Mosallas: What is the main factor affecting the Iran-Saudi Arabia relations after the Saudis’ military intervention in Bahrain?
Dr. Barzegar: I think the most important variable affecting Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia is the efforts made by both countries to increase their “role and influence” in the region through rivalry in two major areas of preserving their “values” and “interests” in the region. As for protection of values and ideological issues, the ongoing rivalry between the two countries revolves around support or lack of support for the Shias in the region. When it comes to the interests, issues such as the balance of power, energy security, and the presence of foreign forces are the most important concerns. The relations between Iran and Saudi are based on two kind of issues. The first is political-security relations in the Persian Gulf which are directly related to the issue of stability and the increased role of the two states in the region. The second kind of relations pertains to the Middle East region at large and pivots around ideological values or even a combination of preserving interests and values. The two states have been competed on these variables for several decades, even during the Shah when Iran and Saudi Arabia were two pillars of the United States’ regional policy. For instance, in the case of the Dhofar war, when Iran sent troops to tackle the communists in the region, the Saudis by the time expressed their concerns about the possible domination of Iran over the Arabian Peninsula and the whole Persian Gulf. They have been constantly wary about Iran’s increasing role and influence in the region. When the war between Iran and Iraq broke out, Saudi Arabia gathered all tiny states of the Persian Gulf to form the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and they provided billions of dollars in aid to Saddam’s regime. In theory, the Council was established just to defend the security of member states against foreign invasion. Of course one major reason behind the establishment of the Council was the possible effects of the 1979 Islamic revolution on the region’s power politics. That rivalry has continued up to the present time. As a result, although Iran and Saudi Arabia recognize each other as regional powers, they are still competing to increase their regional role. For several years now rivalry between the two countries in the region has aimed to create a balance between preserving their values and interests. This characteristic is also quite evident in the current situation in Bahrain. Or when Iran and Egypt decided to advance relations during the Arab Spring, it is said that the Saudis spend billions of dollars to convince the Egyptian elites and statesmen to keep their distance from Iran. Therefore, the rivalry has been here since a long time ago and has little to do with the type of the governments in Tehran and Riyadh. Sometimes, however, it has led to “confrontation” such as the current confrontation between Tehran and Riyadh over developments in the Arab world, especially over Bahrain. At other times, it has been quite “constructive” like the increased bilateral relations under the former Iranian president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Therefore, an amount of rivalry has always existed between the two countries because both try to increase their regional role and influence. There is the issue of the United States’ involvement as well, which supports Saudi Arabia while being hostile to Iran. This issue itself complicates the existing rivalry.
Mosallas: During the past few months, Saudi Arabia has ordered 60 billion dollars weapons from the West and mostly from the US. Some Western media reported that Saudi Arabia and the United States plan to build a missile shield against Iran. Saudi Arabia has also taken an interventionist approach toward the regional developments. Even the Saudi officials in one occasion threatened Iran. Would you consider Saudi Arabia a threat to Iran’s national security?
Dr. Barzegar: Military capabilities are not the only criteria to judge whether Saudi Arabia is or is not a threat. Instead one should also take political, security and intelligence issues into consideration. In my take, Saudi Arabia lacks the military ability and strategic spirit to threaten Iran. I mean, it may own advanced weapons, but I really doubt that they can effectively use them against Iran. Backing to recent history, when Saddam attacked Kuwait in 1990, the Kuwaiti forces were not motivated enough to even resist for a few days and just fled away. The same happened to Saudi Arabia. A battalion of Saddam’s troops, consisted of about 250 soldiers and a few tanks, attacked Saudi Arabia’s city of Khafji along the eastern border, located 250 km deep in the country and occupied it for a few days.
Saudi Arabia could drove them away only with military support from the United States. Therefore, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to be a serious military threat to Iran, which enjoys an experienced, powerful and motivated army. Of course, one should consider that the Saudis do not have to do that because military action against Iran dose not have any place in the country’s security strategies. However, Saudi Arabia can threaten Iran’s national interests and security in other ways. Assume that Saudi Arabia puts its arsenal and military bases at the United States’ disposal in a possible state of war. Or by stockpiling weapons, Saudi Arabia potentially increases the possibility of instability, tension, and war in the region. A reason for continuation of the Iran-Iraq war was the accumulation of arsenals in both countries. As for ordering 60 billion dollars of weapons, one should say that there is a special relationship between the United States’ military industries and the Saudis’ political and security elites. This may be the cost paid by the Saudis to avail them of the US political and security protection. If Western countries were sure that arms sales to Saudi Arabia would entail hefty profits for them, they would be willing to protect the ruling elites who are an instrument for the enforcement of US policies to contain Iran. These are indirect but serious threats to Iran’s national security and interests.
Regarding the Saudis’ political impact, however, I think Saudi’s foreign policy has been very sophisticated to the extent that it could be a serious threat to Iran. During past years, Saudi Arabia has used three means to achieve its foreign policy goals: money of oil and pumping financial supports, the Wahhabi ideology, and lobbying both at the regional and international levels. Although the Wahhabi ideology and the human rights situations in the country is not acceptable to regional and international public opinion, the Saudis have been able to conduct a successful foreign policy. Affecting the Iraq politics is a good example. During the March 2010 parliamentary elections in Iraq, the Saudis managed the event by spending a lot of money, mobilizing media and lobbying with regional states and the West to put Ayad Allawi, a Shia leader, at the top of the Al Iraqiya, a Sunni-based party, which finally won the parliamentary election as the first party. This development widened the existing differences between the Shia political forces thereby postponed the establishment of the Iraqi government for eight months and at the same time created a fragile Shia coalition at the top of the Iraqi government, a major breakthrough for the Saudi foreign policy in a country dominated by a Shia majority. By its lobbying also, the Saudis could manage to get the green light from the United States to intervene in Bahrain. Such a Saudi Arabia might not be a military threat against to Iran, but its political and security measures may pose real threats to Iran’s national security both in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East at large. Therefore, relations with Saudi Arabia should be carefully engineered. Saudi Arabia cannot be ignored in political and security issues of the region. Thus, to avoid possible losses, Iran should engage in calculated interaction with that country.
Mosallas: It is generally believed that if one of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf collapses, this will affect the others in a domino kind situation. Therefore, Saudi Arabia has sent troops to Bahrain to show that it is determined to pay any price to preserve its interests and, more importantly, to prevent further strengthening of Iran’s regional role. What benefit may arise from relations with Saudi Arabia for Iran’s national security and the existing balance of power in the region?
Dr. Barzegar: Saudi Arabia noticed that the rise of a Shia government in Bahrain would influence the country’s Shia population. Therefore, Saudi Arabia had only one strategic choice in Bahrain: to contain crisis and prevent it from spilling over into Saudi Arabia thereby influencing the Shias living in eastern parts of the country. Therefore, the Saudis took the initiative by sending in their forces. This does not necessarily mean that Saudi Arabia is expanding its military influence, rather it strives to increase its role in order to preserve its relative security in a defensive manner. Saudi Arabia has probably reached the conclusion that if the crisis is controlled, the Saudi troops should leave Bahrain. Long-term military presence in Bahrain will cast doubts on Saudi’s true intentions thereby leading to a confrontation between Shias and Sunnis which can destabilize the whole region. In controlling the crisis in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia was smart enough to use available means (money, lobby, and media) and turn a domestic issue which had its roots in economic, political, human security problems of Bahrain, into an issue of foreign threat from Iran. In other words, the tumult in Bahrain was ascribed to Iran’s increasing influence in the region. Riyadh also used its media to convince other member states of the GCC such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to support its cause within framework of the “Peninsula Shield Force.” The Force was originally supposed to be deployed in case a member state was threatened by a foreign power. But we know that continued crisis in Bahrain can challenge all Persian Gulf littoral states and also pose serious challenge to Saudi Arabia despite its dominance over ongoing trends of the Council.
Some experts in the United States tend to believe that there will be trouble in future relations between Washington and Riyadh. They argue that Iran was expected to take the initiative in the “Arab Spring” and steer those developments in its own favor. However, it seems that Saudi Arabia is riding the tide and is trying to limit the range of those uprisings as much as possible. They also believe that if the United States is really seeking to change its strategy toward former regional allies and focus on new democratic changes, Saudi Arabia will prove to be a major obstacle. This might be true, but one should also argue that due to profound interdependence as well as special, deep-rooted relations, Washington and Riyadh will find new ways to expand future relations and their interests are not likely to clash. Perhaps the United States seeks to see changes in Saudi Arabia, but it never pursues rapid changes. Washington attaches great significance to stability in the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia can still be a reliable Arab ally in line with the United States’ traditional policy to create balance of power in the region. Saudi Arabia is also an important component of the US policy to contain Iran. Iran has different political and security views with the United States. Saudi Arabia, for example, can obstruct détente between Tehran and Cairo, which is also a favored goal for the United States. Therefore, it is hard to believe that Saudi Arabia will ever try to challenge the US interests in the region.
Mosallas: If recent developments spread to Saudi Arabia and a change of power happens in the country, what would be possible consequences for Iran and how Iran would be able to cope with possible crisis resulting from disarray in Saudi Arabia’s power structure?
Dr. Barzegar: A shift in power structure in Saudi Arabia would not necessarily mean that the future government will be friendly to Iran. If that government consisted of middle class and national independent elites, it might still be at odds with Iran regarding regional stability and the level of the role and influence the two countries might have in the region’s politics. Of course, any Saudi government is likely to be more positive to Iran than the present one. At least, they will not follow anti-Iranian policies that the United States at the moment expects the Saudi government to follow. This, again, does not mean that Saudi Arabia will be one hundred percent friendly to Iran. In fact, Saudi Arabia will play a role in the region which can lead to rivalry, though rivalry with a more balanced government can be more constructive than hostile. However, Iran and Saudi Arabia have consistently been rivals, not only for their value systems, but as a result of the issues related to power politics, balance of power, leadership of regional currents and so forth. Political structure and power politics in both countries and in the region are such that they will remain rivals for many years to come.
Mosallas: According to the Wall Street Journal, the Saudi officials have started Asian and European tours to mobilize nations and states (including Pakistan, India, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, and even Central Asia) against Iran. What is Iran doing in the meantime? Has Iran taken any individual or collective steps to reduce Saudi Arabia’s influence or threats? Will Saudi Arabia’s action in Bahrain help to spread crisis to other regional countries as those countries are not very different from Bahrain or Yemen in terms of political power structure?
Dr. Barzegar: A feature of the regional political and security system is that Iran and Saudi Arabia both seek to establish stability, but through their own specific and different approaches. Although the Saudis claim that Iran is interfering in Bahrain, in reality, Iran is not willing to change the situation in Bahrain radically. Last month, Iran’s Foreign Minister Dr. Ali-Akbar Salehi visited the regional states such as the UAE. Qatar, and Kuwait to reduce tension. He also planned to visit Saudi Arabia, but was advised to not making the visit by the Iranian parliament because of the Saudi’s military intervention in Bahrain. Iran does not seek to change the geopolitics of power and political structure in the region because this might bring unpredictable results for the region’s stability. Iran, however, has special interests in the region (both in terms of values and interests) and should not allow rival states to easily challenge them. Saudi Arabia’s military incursion into Bahrain is a serious challenge to Iran’s national interests and so Iran must have a strategy to deal with it. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has its own view of stability. The Saudis believe that no Shia government should be established in Bahrain because it will directly influence Saudi Arabia’s Shias and challenge the very foundations of the state power in the country. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia know that continued instability may evolve into a full-blown sectarian conflict between the Shias and the Sunnis in the entire region. One knows that this would be the worst crisis ever in the region. Therefore, both countries are willing to solve differences and work toward stability. But again by their own specific ways. This is where that Iran should employ an active diplomatic effort in order to solve the crisis. Iran should take an active and powerful position toward regional developments making sure that Iran’s interests and values are secured.
Mosallas: Some say that Iran is a kind of deadlock due to lack of relations with the United States, imposed international sanctions, and tension with neighboring countries. Do not you think that this situation prevents the country from appearing more powerful. Do you believe in such kind of thinking?
Dr. Barzegar: Not necessarily. If by sanctions and deadlock you are alluding to the presence of US forces in the region, I believe that this happens to be exactly the right time for following an active diplomacy when Iran appears as a constructive player which can good use of its sources of national power and regional influence to solve regional crises. New developments may even provide Iran with an opportunity to mend fences with the West and regional states over its nuclear program. Although Saudi Arabia has been making good use of its money and lobby with Iran’s neighboring countries, they are aware of the level of Iran’s influence and status in region. Saudi Arabia may succeed in the short term, but in the long term its strategic weight is not strong enough to have great influence on the policies of the aforesaid countries. Iran should move to counteract Saudi Arabia’s measures. Iran should show that it does not support geopolitical and regime changes in the region. At the same time, it should lend its support to lawful demands of nations. An active player should take a powerful political position so that other players will take its role in the course of the crisis quite seriously. Iran cannot stay away from regional issues, especially in the Persian Gulf which is of utmost strategic importance to Iran’s national interests and security. The Persian Gulf region has been a gravity center for international politics and plays a crucial role in international energy security where Iran has been present in cultural, political, and economic terms for thousands of years. Saudi Arabia, the United States, and other rival states should understand Iran’s sensitivities and take constructive approaches to solve the regional crises which would also be acceptable to Iran. On the other hand, Iran should accept the reality that Saudi Arabia and the United States have also their own concerns and interests in the region. Iran should prove that as a regional power, it accepts the status quo while trying to secure its political and security role. If the other parties cared for Iran’s concerns and accepted its regional role, then it would be possible for both sides to balance their interests.