While many analysts have in recent weeks trumpeted the role of Iran as an emerging regional power, the more astute have pointed to the remarkable role of Saudi Arabia in shaping the regional agenda across both the Persian Gulf and the Levant.
The two key developments were February’s Saudi-brokered Mecca agreement between Hamas and Fatah, and Saudi Arabia’s series of meetings with Iran’s top security official, Ali Larijani, over both Lebanon and Tehran’s nuclear program. But there was also huge significance in February’s visit to Saudi by Vladimir Putin, the first by a Russian leader to any country of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Riyadh’s relationship with Tehran remains delicate. The persisting political vacuum in Iraq, where the Shia-led government is struggling to establish any effective authority, inevitably sucks in neighbors, with the Persian Gulf’s two leading powers having opposing visions of Iraq’s future.
“Iran would like a strong Shia state whereas the Saudis want a Sunni state,” says one insider in Tehran. “But it’s all been complicated by the naive vision of the US, Iraq’s third important player, which sought a quiet, ‘democratic’ Iraq with US military bases for at least 20 years. I don’t see the Americans being successful in reconciling these three visions, whether or not they send more troops.”
While both Tehran and the Saudis—officially or unofficially—pour resources into intelligence operations in Iraq, both governments are concerned at the dangers of sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni, which can embolden extremists in Iraq and elsewhere. Pragmatists in both Saudi Arabia and Iran would like to get back to the growing realism of their relationship under former Iranian presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami.
“Even if Iran has more influence than the Saudis in Iraq, Saudi Arabia has more influence across the Islamic world, and this can genuinely harm Iran,” an official in Tehran says.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has warned publicly of differences among Muslims being fueled by “those who, for the happiness of US and Zionists, talk about an imagined … ‘Shia crescent’ and those who stir up insecurity and brother-killings in Iraq to make the Islamic and popular [Iraqi] government fail.”
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s “cautious welcome” of the new US Iraq policy reflected relief at the easing of earlier fears that Washington was contemplating a pull-out, even though the strategy had been agreed upon during Vice-President Dick Cheney’s visit to Riyadh in November.
Tehran is also concerned over Saudi influence in Lebanon, growing since the Syrian withdrawal and cemented by the donation of $1 billion to the central bank during the summer’s Israeli onslaught and the Gulf kingdom’s sponsorship of reconstruction in mainly Shi’a South Lebanon. Conservatives in Tehran also charge the Saudis with encouraging Hamas, the militant Palestinian group, to keep a distance from Tehran, and fostering anti-Shi’a sentiment among Sunni clerics in Pakistan.
The Saudis are wary both of Iran’s nuclear program and of the popularity of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Arab and Islamic worlds, and are well aware of the wave of sympathy likely to be generated for Iran should it be attacked by the US or Israel.
An opinion poll released last month by Zogby International found that 61% of Arabs backed Iran’s nuclear program, even if it led to the acquisition of weapons. Nearly 80% identified the US and Israel as the main threats to regional security with only 6% naming Iran.
Hence the Saudis have opted for subtle economic pressure on Iran in the hope this will lead Tehran to compromise. Riyadh moved in January to keep oil prices at a relatively low level, vetoing a proposed emergency OPEC meeting when the price dipped below $50 a barrel. The move constrained Iran’s oil income, which generates around 60% of government revenue, at a time when US-encouraged banking sanctions are squeezing Tehran’s access to capital badly needed for oil and gas projects.
The Mecca accord, which went down badly in Washington, but has also done something to neutralize Tehran’s appeal as the “true” defender of Palestinian rights and remind the region that the 2002 “Arab peace plan,” agreed at the Beirut Arab League summit and still on the table, was essentially a Saudi proposal.
And hence the Saudis’ desire to agree a minimum framework with Tehran over Lebanon—including the acceptance of the UN enquiry into the murder of Rafik Hariri—and reduce the possibility that the persisting stand-off between the government of Fuad Seniora and the Hizbullah-led opposition could get out of hand.
The end-game of the Saudi strategy is probably both the halting of the Iranian nuclear program and the beginnings of strategic dialogue between Washington and Tehran. That neither will be easily accomplished should not detract from the real progress that has already been made.