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Islam and Politics ( 30 Jun 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Saudi, Iran and the Islamic Divide

By Talmiz Ahmad

Jul 01, 2015

Over the last year and-a-half, Iran and the P5+1 have steadily reached various milestones in their negotiations on the nuclear issue. After the announcement of the framework agreement in April this year, the two sides are now embarked on the endgame, with the final agreement likely in July.

Both Israel and Saudi Arabia view the emerging US rapprochement with Iran with the greatest alarm, clearly indicating that their primary concern has not been Iran’s nuclear weapons’ capability as much as the fear of Iran’s enhanced role in regional affairs commensurate with its geopolitical, energy and economic resources.

From the Saudi perspective, the US’ engagement with Iran is taking place in the midst of a series of crises generated by the Arab Spring, which threaten Saudi interests. Thus, there is increasing Iranian influence in Iraq where newly-empowered Shia militia, supported by Iranian forces, are leading the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

In Syria, after four years of fighting, rebel forces backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have failed to dislodge President Bashar al-Assad, who enjoys substantial Iranian military and financial assistance, while the ISIS maintains its hostility to the kingdom and continues to attract supporters from across the world, including Saudi Arabia. It took credit for the large-scale killing of Shias in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, followed recently by four gory attacks on the same day in Kuwait, Syria, Tunisia and France to commemorate its first anniversary.

Saudi Arabia is also engaged in combat at its southern border, in Yemen. Here the Houthis, a militia from north Yemen’s Zaydi community, which had deep-seated grievances with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh (who had excluded it from any share in the country’s economic resources or political power), took advantage of his weak successor to launch an attack on the capital, Sanaa, in September 2013, and soon spread across the country. Here again the Saudis have seen the hidden hand of Iran: in Saudi’s view, the “Shia Crescent” is now an effective noose around it. In response, Saudi Arabia has put together an Arab (Sunni) coalition and from March 2015 initiated air assaults upon Houthi targets across Yemen. So far over 3,000 air attacks have taken place in which several hundred people have been killed.

The complex regional scenario and the increasing challenges perceived by Saudi Arabia have led the kingdom to pursue some unprecedented engagements of its own. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have been making every effort to discredit the US governments’ interactions with Iran among US policymakers, so much so that the negotiations have become a major issue in the US’ deeply divided domestic politics. Very public “Track II” interactions have also been taking place between Saudi and Israeli interlocutors, primarily to convey the two countries’ frustration with American policies in West Asia to anti-Obama groups in the US.

The other Saudi initiative is equally extraordinary: not able to convince the US to get into the Syrian conflict militarily and having failed to unseat the Assad regime so far, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have together set up a new rebel force in Syria, Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), which has brought together the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and a number of other Salafi militia.

This new Jihadi group took the provincial capital Idlib in March 2015, the second provincial capital to fall in the four-year campaign after Raqqa in 2013. However, efforts to re-brand Jabhat al-Nusra as “moderate” have not been successful. In early June 2015, its cadres killed 20 Druze villagers in Idlib province, and the organisation has still not disavowed its links with Al Qaeda.

Another policy change is the Saudis’ more accommodative posture towards the Muslim Brotherhood, which the kingdom had declared a terrorist group in March 2014. Saudi officials first made conciliatory remarks about the Brotherhood in February 2015, while shaping a Sunni coalition against the Houthis in Yemen. They hope that when a political process emerges in that country, they can promote the Islamist Islah Party. Compulsions in Syria favour this accommodative approach since the Syrian Brotherhood is close to Qatar and Turkey, hostile to

Mr Assad and is a viable political force in the country. However, these overtures to the Brotherhood have come at a price: they have upset General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo, the protégé of the Gulf Cooperation Council, with the general being concerned about the rehabilitation of Islamists in Syria and possibly Yemen by his Gulf allies.

Another emerging game changer in West Asia is the recent general election in Turkey, where Recep Tayyip Erdogan has emerged with just 40 per cent of the vote. Most Arab commentators now wonder about the future of the Sunni coalition put together by Saudi Arabia and, specifically, the resilience of the rebel effort in Syria, now largely led by Jihadi forces. Some have also spoken approvingly of the opportunity now available to the Kurds to realise their nationhood.

Across West Asia, there is a sense of deep distress at the pervasive chaos, violence and destruction, and pessimism about the future. Not only are states like Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya in the throes of civil conflict and anarchy and unlikely to be put together again, the ISIS continues to prosper, with a presence in a dozen states and increasing declarations of support from several other Jihadi groups in South and West Asia and North Africa.

Given the horrendous implications this scenario has for regional and global security and well-being, it is important for new players, such as India and China, with deep and abiding interest in the stability of West Asia, to pursue a diplomatic initiative to shape a platform for engagement between the estranged Islamic giants, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat