Saudi Arabia and Iran: the strange couple

(To Gino Lanzara)
06/11/21

The balance of power is not a geopolitical element compatible with the Persian Gulf area; those who were the two Middle Eastern pillars of Soviet containment of Nixon, Saudi Arabia and Iran, have long been tending to destabilize the area by conducting a conflict of varying intensity and centered on the proxy wars in Yemen, Syria, Iraq.

If on the one hand Tehran has continued to pursue since 1979 an expansion policy that fuels sectarianisms, which was correctly stigmatized as early as 2004 by King Abdallah II of Jordan1 and faithful to velayat-e-faqih2, on the other hand, Riyadh, which has extensively financed Koranic schools with a conservative imprint, tries to look at a future full of unknowns and linked to the performance of a management conditioned by oversights or interpretations that are difficult to manage, as in the case of the controversial events that have brought the Siraq to Saudi Wahhabism. The defaillance of Riyadh must not, however, make us forget the Iranian impasse with the disappointing Iraqi elections and the difficulties of Hezbollah in a Lebanon now ready to explode.

The religious aspect, politically speaking, exploded in early 2016 with the Iranian demonstrations following the execution of Nimr al Nimr, an important Shiite cleric, accused by the Saudis of inciting subversion. Iran has repeatedly accused Saudi Arabia of supporting jihadist groups to promote a conservative Sunni vision; Riyadh has stigmatized Iranian expansionist policies aimed at supporting armed Houthi militias in Yemen, an unacceptable risk for the Kingdom.

Despite the presidential change in Washington, Saudi Arabia remains strategically linked to the US, although there is a certain reluctance to suffer forms of interference in internal affairs, according to an alliance based on clientelist relations, also given the normalization process with Israel. useful both to make the increase in regional political influence feasible, and to accentuate the perception of the existential risk represented by Iran present in the south in Yemen and along the corridor that reaches the Mediterranean through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the cradle of Hezbollah , the party of God shaped by the Pasdaran to translate the focus of the confrontation with the USA, Israel and Saudi Arabia into the Arab Levant.

Geopolitically it can be said that very little remains of the Sykes-Picot agreements of 1916; from this point of view, the Shiite crescent is a simplification of reality, given that the Iranian alliances fall within the logic of realpolitik.

The posture held by the Emirates regarding the acquisition of 22% of the Israeli offshore Tamar field is interesting; for the UAE, Israel is a concrete geopolitical actor capable of an influence infinitely greater than its size, so much so as to make contacts between the Mossad and the Saudi secret services possible.

In the meantime, Iranian politics follows two directions in the same area; the first, as seen, is terrestrial, the second maritime that joins the Mediterranean from the Persian Gulf through the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, a context in which Israel must ensure control of the strategic depth. The signals that come from the points of crisis existing between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between Turkey-Qatar and UAE-Egypt-Saudi Arabia, seem to highlight a political orientation driven by a concrete pragmatist realism that seems to have hinted at what conflicts are impossible to win. , net of the positions of principle pro Muslim Brotherhood: power politics still exists, but at this moment economically it's not convenient.

Realistically, the issue of respect for human rights does not seem to be able to constitute a serious imbalance in the definition of relations between the Saudis and the Americans, despite the demands of the scene impose attitudes and policies apparently based on discontinuity: the USA ensures, as far as possible now, a geographic protection extended also on the Straits and on different planes3, and at the same time they secure a generous portion of energy resources.

President Biden, who must send reassuring signals to American internal lobbies opposed to Bin Salman, fearing the dissemination of documents concerning Riyadh's involvement in 11/XNUMX, did not speak directly with Prince Mohammed, but directly with the king, also given the Chinese attempts to undermine the stars and stripes hegemony in the Arabian Peninsula, according to a predominantly economic paradigm.

The Saudi defense system, after the attacks conducted on the Saudi oil infrastructure in 20194, was strengthened with the deployment of additional missile batteries Patriot, managed by a hw controlled by the USA; this, however, cannot make any of the parties involved forget how the pivot American is now facing much further east.

In the area, the normalization of relations between Arab countries and Israel is the result of a preparation managed by the Saudis in competition with the UAE, with which relations are fluctuating especially for the determination of the quantities of crude oil to be extracted, according to the dictates of a strategic alliance that has advised against Riyadh, due to the Abrahamic Agreements (photo), to formally expose itself. Just think of the opportunity for Israel to conduct confidential diplomatic activities with the countries adhering to the Abrahamic agreements to avoid apparent support for one or the other contender in the various disputes.

Another faulty point of Saudi politics is represented by Lebanon, for a long time in the orbit of Riyadh; the difference with Tehran lies precisely in the different policy adopted: while the Iranians always ask for a concrete counterpart for every investment made, the Saudis find it even difficult to obtain an account of the amount given. Nothing more understandable therefore than to hypothesize a difficult one deescalation between the two countries, given that Ankara is also increasingly dangerously pervasive, and that in many areas the sectarian and religious opposition between Gulf Sunnism and Iranian Shiism is increasingly evident, favored by a radicalization that has facilitated the perception of Shiites as infiltrated agents from Tehran or Hezbollah; an invasive vision present since 1982, when Khomeini decided to reject the ceasefire by continuing the war against Iraq, inducing the Gulf countries to support Saddam Hussein, transforming the sacred defense fighting for survival accompanied by the perennial Shiite sense of strategic solitude. In this context, the prospect of a confederal union of the Gulf5 led by Saudi Arabia, however opposed by Kuwait, Oman of essential importance for its diplomatic and mediating capacity, Qatar pragmatically reconciled with the other GCC countries6, and the UAE, following the Cooperation Council, would allow a more efficient defensive and economic reticularity capable of ensuring greater protection for members of the Arabian Peninsula, careful both to prevent the increase of Iranian influence and to contain the aftermath of the Arab Springs, transforming the regional monarchies into valid strategic economic actors but under Saudi control.

However, it should be remembered that Saudi stability depends both on the US Administration in office7, both from Vision 2030, Prince Bin Salman's project which, if it fails, could trigger a tribal conflict aimed at rekindling jihadism by upsetting the global economy. A possible Saudi collapse would fuel Iranian influence in the area: from Iraq to Lebanon, from Syria to Yemen; while it is true that Iran could try to exploit Saudi weakness in Bahrain, it would itself be put at risk by the instability that would make shipping and trade routes uncertain.

However, the Arab-Iranian confrontation must also be considered in light of the conditions in which Tehran and Riyadh find themselves facing situations related to the effects of the pandemic, the economic crisis and too many regional fronts open and which now require more than a formal commitment in Yemen. and in Iraq with the diplomatic support of Oman and Qatar. The US multilateralist initiatives of the diplomacy first in relation to the Iranian JCPOA, with more restrictive requirements than in 2015 and with the burdens imposed by American sanctions, given the Saudi willingness to consider a total ban on Tehran's missile projects, and in light of the fact that a flexible nuclear agreement would legitimize regional aspirations Iranian. Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, in fact, will not accept the reissue of the previous nuclear deal so often violated by Tehran. Taking into account that an agreement with Iran would incentivize Saudi Arabia and the UAE to further manage their nuclear program, to which Chinese support is not unrelated, not even with regard to the supply of Iranian crude oil, it must in any case be considered that Riyadh, a potential producer of uranium from unconventional resources8, would carefully consider a stalemate in Vienna, given that the end of the negotiations would bring the pursuit of military options against Tehran, which would have to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, assuming American support for the Gulf countries, closer. In short, for Riyadh the atom of the Ayatollahs is inevitable.

A hypothetical nuclear Iran relaunches the functional Israeli atom as a deterrent, and feeds Riyadh's fear of finding an earthenware pot surrounded by iron vessels. From the perspective of a pragmatist tit for tat, the hypothesis of a competitive coexistence supported by a balance of power, deterrence and mutual conviction has begun to take shape that mutual efforts in the Middle East have led to an exhausting and useless wear. But be careful, for both of them it is a tactical need, in the medium term, an expression of a balance that is now very weak, both for the numerical consistencies of men and means in favor of Tehran, which is perceived as an entity imperial completely different from the Arabic meaning and characterized by a demography that counts about double the number of subjects compared to the other countries in the area put together9, both from the geography that rewards Iran as a link to the Caucasus, Caspian, Russia, Afghanistan, the Arabian Peninsula, China, India and South East Asia. It is no coincidence that Saeed Khatibzadeh, spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, expressed Tehran's readiness to dialogue with Riyadh from where Bin Salman showed conciliatory tones.

On the one hand, the Saudis fear that a relative normalization of Iranian-American relations could benefit Tehran by weakening the liaison between Riyadh and Washington, on the other hand for the Iranians the resumption of relations with the Saudis is considered as an inevitable duty to contain the effects of the Agreements of Abraham and to prevent a strategic encirclement in the Gulf. Progress in the dialogue between Saudis and Iranians becomes so significant also for the USA, which will try to capitalize on every possible strategic advantage both in the Viennese dialogues, in which Israel is also directly interested, and in the processes of détente underway, but without letting their guard down. in monitoring compliance with the sanctions regarding the export of crude oil: both attacks on the navigation of Israeli ships and unrealistic Iranian acts of force frustrated by American naval power continue to be frequent in the Gulf.

But the US is not the only important player: international dynamics have brought Russia and Iran closer, but not so much as to make each other a real strategic ally; if Moscow on the one hand looks with interest at the JCPOA currently in a stalemate, and sends moderating messages to Jerusalem so as not to flare up an escalation between Israel and Iran, on the other it does not intend to give up control of Tehran's actions in Syria.

In summary, the Russian-Iranian sharing of regional and international interests, primarily the containment of US presence and influence in MO, does not avoid limitations on the depth of relations, in a context that forces Raisi's Tehran, and in particular Khamenei's, to to maintain relations with Moscow and Beijing and to want to improve ties with the Gulf countries.

If the JCPOA is truly renewed, Iran will be able to return to compete on the oil market where Russia is a major player in price regulation, and taking into account the fact that the American withdrawal from Afghanistan will impose a synergistic policy aimed at preventing the the spread of radical Islamic threats. Realistically, the development of a Russian-American dialogue regarding the Syrian context, supported by a US quid pro quo, would facilitate Moscow in establishing more assertive relations with Tehran.

Conclusions. Is it possible to reasonably think about the beginning of a period of relative peace? We believe not. The deal, if it ever comes to one Liaison of this type, it will have a tactical and contingent nature, limited to the moment of crisis that both countries, Iran and Saudi Arabia, for various reasons, are experiencing. That the minister of a formally failed state, Lebanon, expresses his free thought against the establishment of the Saudi Kingdom, speaks volumes about the solidity of the institutions and political beliefs, which had to succumb to the inevitable chain reaction unleashed in the Gulf .

Iranian expansion cannot fail to arouse fears, just as the concrete possibility that Tehran, sooner or later, will enrich its arsenal with nuclear weapons cannot avoid them; with a canvas so rich in contrasting characters, what is missing today is probably a author capable of giving rational body and substance to a situation otherwise devoid of any way out.

1 According to Abdallah II, the Iraqi government would have collaborated with Tehran and Syria to create a Shiite axis extended to Lebanon and capable of subverting the Sunni balance 

2 Government of the Jurisconsult; the responsibility of government is entrusted to the expert in religious law (faqih), who is presented in the same way as the Imams, who for Shiite Islam are venerable and infallible figures

3 Economic, political, military

4 It was found that the drones launched against the Saudi Aramco plants came from the north, and would testify to Iranian involvement, given that the radius was equal to 700 km, confirming the impossibility of the Yemeni origin. The plants are located in the provinces of Abqaiq and Khurais, in eastern Saudi Arabia. The Abaiq plant processes the raw material from the world's largest oil pipeline, Ghawar, and exports it to Juaymah and Ras Tanura. Among the weapons used, there were also Iranian-made aircraft, specifically Delta Wing-type drones and Ya Ali missiles.

5 The Cooperation Council was born in 1981 to face the Soviet threat in Afghanistan, the Gulf Wars, the Iran-Iraq War, the 1990/91 War against Iraq.

6 Al Ula GCC summit in January 2021

7 The new US administration brought about changes in Saudi foreign policy: reconciliation with Qatar in January 2021, the offer to the Houthis of a ceasefire to the Houthis in Yemen in March and the start of dialogue with Iran.

8 According to the IAEA there are approximately 283400 tons of uranium-containing minerals in the deposits of al-Jalamid, al-Khabra, Ghurayyah, Jabal Sayd and Umm Wu'al

9 80 million compared to the 47 of the others

Photo: web / Twitter / IRNA / IDF