Prospects for Saudi-Iranian Detente Bleak

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal in Tehran 12 June 2006. Al-Faisal arrived in Tehran today, saying he hoped for a speedy resolution to the crisis over Iran's nuclear programme. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

by Mehdi Jedinia

Some optimistic analysts mistakenly believe that Iran and Saudi Arabia are heading toward a mutual understanding over a new regional security architecture based on a balance of powers between them and their allies. Instead, because the current situation is rife with tensions, regional competition between Iran and its Arab rivals will likely escalate.

In some ways, the recent interim nuclear deal has facilitated Iran’s regional ambitions. Tehran sees itself playing a decision-making role in the political transition in Syria and retaining a strong presence in Yemen. But Iran’s dreaming of regaining its pre-revolutionary role as the gendarme of the region is the worst nightmare of neighboring Arab countries. More specifically, it runs counter to the position that Saudi Arabia intends to push to the top of the agenda of the May 13-14 Camp David and White House summits between President Barack Obama and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

According to an October 11 editorial in Al-Riyadh, a newspaper close to the royal family, Saudis suspect Iran’s strong involvement in Yemen to such an extent that Tehran would like to choose the country’s leader. This interference is designed, so they believe, to turn Yemen into another Iraq, another Iranian protégé in the region that challenges Saudi Arabia’s regional power and opens the door to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS or IS).

With a new king in Saudi Arabia, whose young son is now defense minister, Riyadh has no intention to reduce its powerful strategic role in Yemen. The outcome of the war there will also be the first real test of the new king’s prowess. The Saudi bombing of Sanaa airport to stop Iranian planes from landing and reportedly delivering humanitarian aid is a vivid sign of how far King Salman is prepared to go to counter Tehran.

Riyadh has reiterated previously that détente in the region depends on Tehran withdrawing its forces from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and anywhere else Riyadh might have a foothold. Yet Tehran, with a nuclear deal almost in hand, is already more comfortable flexing its muscles in the entire region and acting wherever it can find a reliable ally. The military activity in Iraq and Syria of Quds force leaders, including top general Qasem Soleimani, demonstrate Iran’s reach.

The rivalry between Shia and Sunni is also a key factor. The tensions between these denominations, which significantly increased after 9/11, have only intensified in the wake of the civil war in Syria. The rise of Sunni militias including the Talibanal-QaedaSalafis, and IS in the region has increased the depth of the enmity between the sects. Shia groups, considered blasphemous by Sunnis, saw no other choice but to mobilize themselves against these waves of Sunni jihadism. Tehran—which calls itself Umm al-Qura  or the “Mother of All Islamic Cities”—found the situation exploitable and resorted to supporting Shia proxies in the region.

Considering all the above factors, conflict is not likely to subside but rather to escalate in the aftermath of a nuclear deal. Even as the Saudis promised U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to begin a humanitarian cease-fire in Yemen, Houthi militias targeted the border region of Saudi Arabia in Najran with mortars. This was in reaction to King Salman’s call on Gulf leaders to stand up to Iran, saying there was a need to confront an external threat that “aims to expand control and impose its hegemony,” threatening regional stability and creating sectarian sedition.

Next week’s summit in Washington won’t defuse this cycle of escalation. Indeed, by offering more weapons to Gulf States, Washington will probably only deepen the cleavage.

Mehdi Jedinia is an Iranian-American journalist and social media analyst.

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  1. The U.S. divide-and-conquer strategy is the largest factor inhibiting Saudi-Iranian detente. It really began in earnest at Samarra in 2006 with the mosque bombing.

  2. Umm al Qura is well known to be the city of Makkah. This is a well-known fact in Islamic literature. Tehran never claimed to be Umm al Qura even Iranian religious individuals refuse that!

  3. While Iran has proven that a revolution against a corrupted ruling family can work, Saudi Arabia has yet to experience it. All the agitation in the GCC is to prevent such revolution to happen. Can they avoid the inavoidable?

    Teaming with Islamist militias linked to Al Qaeda to avoid their own troops in Syria, bombing to ruins one of the poorest country is the world, collaborating with neo-ottoman Turkey, are just a few signs of increased panic within the GCC.
    The USA has clearly made a move away from the GCC by negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran. The GCC does not consider the USA as a reliable protector anymore. Therefore it is turning to France for weapons and to regional Sunni military powers to ensure loyalty. Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan are the new Sunni candidates for a Sunni unified military to oppose Iran, Iraq and the Hezbollah.
    While there is some enthusiasm in the GCC for the Sunni forces ‘victories’ in Syria, despite the fact that these Sunni forces are terrorists, there is a long way until a effective and controllable Sunni military emerges. Now it is pure gambling but there are no other ways for the GCC to assert its power in the region.
    Gambling means that the GCC may loose his legitimacy in the eyes of its population if it does not succeed in a short time. Therefore Syria and Yemen maybe the test cases that would take or break the GCC.

  4. @ “This interference is designed, so they believe, to turn Yemen into another Iraq, another Iranian protégé in the region that challenges Saudi Arabia’s regional power and opens the door to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS or IS).”

    This makes no sense. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are U.S./Saudi/Turkish creations.

  5. Iran always claimed his capital as the Umm al-Qura or the “Mother of All Islamic Cities” since 1979 revolution. Just google the word in Arabic and or Persian and you will encounter with tons of contents in that regard.

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