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Riyadh-Tehran: Broken Bridges

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Events on the ground in Iraq, Syria and Yemen are gradually pushing Saudi-Iranian relations towards further escalation. Iran’s Brigadier General Qolamreza Jalali, Commander of Iran’s Passive Defense Organization (one of the domestic security agencies) said June 27 that Saudi threats to the Islamic Republic are increasing and finding new ways. “We have to find and prepare new methods to fight back”, he added.

In Jalali’s views, Riyadh works against Iran because of ideological, security and economic reasons. He gave an example of Saudi intervention in Iranian affairs during recent riots in Mahabad. The riots of the Kurdish population of the Iranian town started last May when a hotel chambermaid died after throwing herself from the fourth floor of the hotel where she worked. People claimed she was trying to avoid sexual harassment from a senior Tehran official visiting Mahabad. Jalali said that 80% of online calls made prior to and during the revolt were between Saudi Arabia and Mahabad.

Jalali reflected the mutual escalation in suspicions and the increasing lack of distrust. The mounting tension between the two countries carries the potential of crossing the limits of proxy wars and the usual verbal attacks. This potential increases with the deterioration of the situations in Iraq and Syria in particular.

Furthermore, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that the Islamic Republic’s enemies are trying to bring the proxy war to Iranian borders. “We have received some information that our enemies are working with some Persian Gulf governments to bring the proxy war to Iranian borders. We will respond decisively to any conspiracy to bring war to our borders” Khamenei said May 20 according to his official website.

So far, a series of small frictions were contained. Earlier in June a group of Saudi visitors in the Iranian city of Mashhad were poisoned in their hotel. Four Saudis were reported to have died. A week earlier, Tehran summoned the Saudi charge d’affaires to protest a rocket attack near the Iranian embassy in Sanaa, Yemen. In an early stage of the Yemen war, Saudi threatened to bomb any Iranian vessel approaching the Yemeni coast. In April, Saudi jets prevented an Iranian plane from reaching Yemen and rejected permission for another plane said to be carrying Iranians in their way to the Haj.

But the two countries are still careful to exchange official statements, that nobody believes anyway, expressing their mutual desire to solve differences through dialogue. In June, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir and Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Abdulluhaian met on the sides of the Islamic Cooperation Organization’s conference in Jeddah and confirmed the willingness of their two countries to build a joint approach to their political and security issues around them.

In reality, it is more General Jalali’s comments that reflect the nature of the real sentiments in the bilateral relations. The real issues poisoning the relations between the two countries are mainly regional. In Syria, for example, the number of casualties among the Iranian Fatemiyoun brigade fighting in support of Bashar Al Assad exceeded 400 fighters. Though it is very difficult to estimate the casualties among Hezbollah members fighting in Syria as the group keeps the number strictly secret and buries its dead soldiers without ceremonies in most cases, Lebanese reports put the number at anything between one and two thousand men.

In Iraq, the Iranians are determined to put the West of the country, at least, under the control of their loyal militias there. In Yemen, the Iranians are said to have encouraged their allies, the Houthis, to topple the elected President and force him to flee to Saudi Arabia.

Saudis understand that by ending its containment policy towards Iran, the US left Saudi Arabia alone to face what Riyadh perceives as hegemonic Iranian project in the Middle East. Iran’s role in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere is given as a proof of Iranian aspirations in the region. Iran considers itself a “natural” leader of the region and the only power suited to shape events there. It resists any US role as an intervention in the regional affairs. Theses affairs are thought of as exclusively an Iranian responsibility.

The general sense in Riyadh is that Iran is strong enough to represent a serious threat not only to the national interest of smaller Gulf nations, but to their very existence. The end of the Iran containment policy will become official with signing a nuclear deal with Tehran. Yet, Iran’s regional meddling was going on during the containment era, it is only normal to assume it will expand the moment international relations are normalized with the Iranians.

Common explanations in Riyadh to President Obama insistence on reaching a deal with Iran is that he does not care much about the Gulf monarchies if he does not harbor disdain towards their regimes. The prospects of developing a regional strategy to limit Iran’s intervention by regional forces is still under construction, so to speak, with some setbacks and some progress as well.

On the ideological level, for one example, a research is being conducted on reviving a new version of pan-Arabism. The Sunni-Shia incitement has proven self-destructive and has caused an international outcry as it contributed to the rise of terrorist organizations.

The new version of Arab nationalism will be different than that of Egypt’s Nasser during the 50’s and the 60’s. It will not target “international imperialism” led by the US, but it will rather point at the immediate threat coming from none Arab neighbors while legitimizing a larger role for any Arab country in any other Arab country. This shift may reduce the threat of some of the worst backward ideas that were spreading under the umbrella of the Sunni verses Shia rift, but it will certainly create its own problems.

In any case, the shift in the policy of the main ally of Saudi Arabia, the US, and the rise of Iran as a regional power with hegemonic aspirations will result in a totally transformed Middle East. Led by Saudi Arabia, the region will go through a different set of regional and external alliances and different internal policies. This transformation will not be confined in the regional inter relations. It will extend to the political structures within its individual countries as well. Ascendance of a more militarized perspective domestically and in regional issues should be expected.

For the Saudis, the time of waiting for the US to help has gone forever. The US will not be looked at as an enemy, but only as an unloyal and unreliable friend. Mechanisms to produce independent regional policies are being created and regional initiatives are taken without even notifying the US. The Middle East is finally abandoning its safe American orbit. It just believes that this orbit does not exist anymore. And if it does, it is not worth considering.