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 Taliban, al-Qaeda, Salafis, 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.