By Neville Teller
December 7, 2013
Confused signals from the Saudi/Iranian front.
That the Middle East’s two Islamic “superpowers” are competitors for the religious leadership of the Muslim world is well recognized. Saudi Arabia, a key Arab state, contains both Mecca and Medina within its borders and is the guardian of the Sunni tradition of Islam. Its lack of affinity with Iran is acute. The Islamic Republic of Iran is not an Arab but a Persian state, its native language is not Arabic but Farsi, and it proclaims itself the custodian of the Shi’ite branch of Islam.
The Sharia law that each claims as its legal framework varies considerably between the two. Iran’s version incorporates both the “Hadd” penal code of unalterable punishments for certain crimes and “jihad” – a call for Holy War which incorporates the obligation to convert the unfaithful.
For the past three decades, ever since the Islamic Republic of Iran began spreading its wings, the two states have pursued radically different political and religious paths. Iran has declared that Western-style democracies in general, and the United States and Israel in particular, are the devil incarnate. They and those who support them, from whatever source – even from within Islam – are legitimate targets for terrorist attack. On the other hand Iran supports all those who oppose these representatives of Satan – even Muslims from the normally derided Sunni sects. Thus Iran has armed, financed and sustained not only Shia-based Hezbollah in Lebanon, but Sunni, Muslim Brotherhood Hamas in Gaza.
Saudi Arabia has, in Iran’s eyes, been supping with the devil – and not with a particularly long spoon, for over the same period the Saudi monarchy has proved itself a major ally of the United States. For this reason Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf régimes under its influence have been the object of Iranian-inspired plots aimed at destabilizing their governments. As a result Arab states across the Middle East have come to view Iran’s activities – especially their obvious ambition to achieve hegemony in the region through the development of a nuclear weapons capability – with acute suspicion.
But the politics of the Middle East are an ever-shifting kaleidoscope, and the old pattern is mutating before our eyes, initiated by the US’s perceptible change of gear in the region. Abandoning established political attitudes expected of Washington, the Obama administration has clearly decided to stake its reputation on embracing diplomacy and dialogue as the method of choice in tackling some of the intractable problems of the region, and absorbing the deleterious consequences.
Consequences there have been. The new approach – applied to the Israel-Palestine dispute, to Bashar Assad and his chemical weapons, to Iran and its nuclear development program, and now to the resolution of the Syrian civil war – has undoubtedly dented the US’s image in the Arab world. With the US on the back foot, Iran has clearly decided to extend to the Arab world in general the “charm offensive” deployed with such success against the West by President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Writing in the Saudi-owned daily Asharq Al-Awsat, recently, Iran’s foreign minister Zarif said: “notwithstanding the focus on our interactions with the West, the reality is that our primary foreign policy priority is our region.” He then undertook a tour of Gulf States Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in an attempt to persuade them that a deal between Iran and Western powers on Tehran’s nuclear program would enhance regional stability. Almost anything could be read into the notable omission of Saudi Arabia from his itinerary. But Zarif was careful to post on his Facebook page a note to the effect that he was ready for negotiations with Saudi Arabia whenever Riyadh was ready, adding that talks would be “beneficial for both countries, the region and the Muslim world.”
Had relations with the US not deteriorated as they have done, this extension of Iran’s charm offensive would surely have cut little ice in Saudi Arabia. In the changed circumstances, it has not been written off. Speaking on his return to Washington from a recent visit to the kingdom, Richard LeBaron, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former US ambassador to Kuwait, said that Saudi Arabia is expected “in the next few months” to begin diplomatic engagements with Iran to “test the waters.”
The former ambassador said that the kingdom is beginning to think through its options. “If they think the scenario is going to emerge where the United States is going to have improved relations with Iran, I think they’ll want to hedge their own bets and test Rouhani’s indication that he believes, for example, that improvement of relations with Saudi Arabia should be an Iranian priority.”
Soon after the interim agreement with Iran was announced in Geneva, the Saudi Arabian cabinet issued a statement welcoming its implications: “The government of the kingdom sees that if there was goodwill, this agreement could represent a preliminary step towards a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear program. The kingdom hopes the agreement will be followed by further steps that would guarantee the rights of all states in the region to peaceful nuclear energy.”
The final words may be more significant than at first appears, for Barry Pavel, another official with the Atlantic Council group, said that during their meetings in the kingdom they were told that if Iran reaches a nuclear capability, Saudi Arabia would go to the US “or other countries” to develop their own nuclear capabilities.” For “other countries”, read Pakistan.
Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic relations with Israel, yet the interim nuclear deal with Iran has projected the two nations into the same corner and resulted in shared concerns about the future. Various rumors have persisted, including joint meetings between the Gulf States and Israel and, most recently, an unconfirmed report from Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency that the intelligence services of Saudi Arabia and Israel are “co-conspiring to produce a computer worm more destructive than the Stuxnet malware to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.”