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Who’s Igniting the Saudi-Iranian Conflict?

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By Viktor Mikhin •

In addition to the very dangerous conflicts in the Middle East, in which Great Britain and Germany are actively involved, there is a ‘hot’ local conflict. This constant tension over the past few years between Saudi Arabia and Iran, their constant struggle for leadership not only in the region, but also for dominance in the Arab world. This tension has been constantly spearheaded by Riyadh, whose rulers while well aware of their political and economic inadequacy nevertheless try to make every effort and opportunity to place themselves first in the region and, with the help of the west, to block the rapid development of Iran in all areas. But Saudi Arabia is not the west, which, on flimsy grounds, for some time slowed down the progressive movement of the Iranian people.

The underlying fact that Saudi Arabia and Iran, as the two largest states with a theocratic regime, each have their own assessment of regional processes and, of course, goals and objectives, is at the core of a long-term conflict that is unlikely to be resolved in the near future. If Riyadh maintains a policy of preserving stability in the region and does not make statements of support for the change of existing regimes (the exception being Syria), Tehran basically supports any change in the regimes of Arab countries aimed at Islamification. A small but quite eloquent example. If Iran calls upon the Palestinian Islamist forces to intensify their efforts and direct them against Israel, then the Saudis invite Hamas and Fatah to Mecca to negotiate peacefully and to establish contacts with Israel. This contrast in the policies of the two countries explains to some extent why the two states have been waging a cold war in the region for many years.

It should be noted, first, that Riyadh’s hostile policy towards Tehran is entirely in the interest of the United States, which, through this conflict, can constantly pressure all areas of Iranian ayatollahs in an attempt to overtake Iran in the Middle East. Secondly, Saudi Arabia is thus trying to prove not only to the countries of the region but also to everyone else the overtly hostile Iranian sentiments and to justify all its allegations regarding Iran’s incitement to religious conflicts in the region.

Yet another evidence of the incitement to conflict was the statement just made by the deputy of the Crown Prince, the son of King Mohammed ibn Salman, who, in dramatic fashion, stated in a TV interview, that Saudis would never speak to Iranians, slamming doors even before the hope of a possible dialogue between them had opened. The son of the king, of course, from his father’s submission, has without grounds accused Iran of seeking dominance in the Muslim world and stressed: ‘We will not wait for Saudi Arabia to become the battlefield… Instead, we will work to ensure that the battle will be brought to Iran.’ You can’t say it any clearer. The gauntlet was thrown at Tehran, which was quite calm in taking another dose of Iranophobia.

On this occasion, the Ambassador of Iran to the United Nations, Holamali Khoshroo, wrote to the Secretary-General expressing the hope that ‘Saudi Arabia would be persuaded to heed the call of reason’. Tehran declares its readiness to negotiate with Saudi Arabia to bring peace to the region, despite the ‘extralegal and provocative’ statements by the deputy of the Saudi Crown Prince. The Ambassador of Iran stated that Tehran had no ‘desire or intention to increase tension with neighbours’.  It also cannot be more clearly stated.

As is well known, if domestic affairs can’t be settled, the leaders are actively turning to foreign policy and looking for an enemy to be blamed for everything. This is what can now be clearly observed in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia when, due to the old age of King Salman, all levers of power passed to his son Muhammad. But he is young, unskilled in either politics or economy and needs to show his supremacy. And from here, for example, the policy of sharply falling oil prices has come. But mainly, it has been Riyadh that has lost.

Three years ago, Saudis, in an attempt to compete with American shale oil, chose to ‘pump, despite low prices,’ which was the beginning of problems. The market played by its rules and moved into the oil surplus at a very low price and absence of buyers. According to Goldman Sachs, the production of shale hydrocarbons in the United States will increase by about 70,000 barrels a day by the end of 2017. In this situation, there will be no compensation for Saudi Arabia’s price/production gaps. The budget deficit is now $100 billion, which has triggered an unprecedented price increase within the country. For the first time in decades, straight from the mouths of its rulers, the King and his son have spoken of economic austerity.

According to the deputy minister of economy of the Kingdom, Mohammed al- Tuwaijri, if measures to reform the economy were not taken, the country was doomed to bankruptcy in three to four years. Even more dramatic was the famous Saudi economist, a former member of the Shura Council (advisory body to the King), Ihsan bu Hulaiga: The economic downturn, he said, was simply enormous.

The failures in foreign policy followed: the unfortunate participation in the campaign to overthrow the legitimately elected president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, the unprovoked war in brotherly neighbouring Yemen, persistent quarrels and claims against neighbours. And therefore, Mohammed ibn Salman decided to hang all the dogs on Iran – hence his rather harsh statement. But will such a policy lead to the normalisation of Saudi domestic and foreign policy? It is unlikely.

Here’s just one example from the Syrian reality. In Astana, a memorandum has just been signed on the establishment of de-escalation or security zones. Until the end of May, four security zones will be established in Syria in the areas of government contact with the armed opposition. Within the zones, the use of weapons will be prohibited and the work of humanitarian organisations will be secured. The perimeters of the zones will create safe areas to prevent clashes. Such a memorandum would seem to be in the interest of all parties to the conflict, including Saudi Arabia. But it wasn’t. Part of the Syrian opposition, which feeds from the hands of the Saudis, left the conference room and Riyadh took a break. Many commentators then stated that Saudi Arabia was satisfied with the memorandum itself, but not with the fact that Iran had become the initiator of it alongside Russia and Turkey. As they say, the reaction of the Saudis was just to spite the Iranians. After a little reflection, the head of the Saudi Arabian Foreign Ministry, Adel al-Jubeir, stated, according to Reuters, that Riyadh supported the establishment of security zones in Syria. Before that, the memorandum was approved by US President Donald Trump, who was informed by the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin.

The unprofessional, poorly balanced policy of Riyadh is finding fewer and less positive responses among its neighbours, the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. For example, the Sultanate of Oman has, as the events have shown, a special relationship with Tehran. In this regard, it may be recalled that secret meetings between the representatives of the United States and Iran were held in the Omani capital, Muscat, even before the signing of the nuclear agreement, with Arab neighbours, including Saudi Arabia, not being informed of this. Moreover, Sultan Qaboos categorically refused to participate in the Saudi war against Yemen, although he was repeatedly reminded that the Saudis were fighting against Iran.

Another country in the region, Kuwait, also has good relations with Iran, despite differing views on a number of international issues. This was evidenced by the visit of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in February of this year, by a brief visit to the country and his negotiations with the Emir of the State of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al-Sabah. As reported by the Kuwaiti media, one of the key tasks of the Iranian President was to improve relations with both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Other countries in the Persian Gulf, the UAE and Qatar, also have good relations with Iran, at least they do not conduct hostile propaganda against the Iranian ayatollahs. The only country here that supports the Saudis is Bahrain. But that is understandable: more than 70% of the population are Shias, who, with the full power of the Sunnis, are not allowed to administer the emirate at all. Not surprisingly, that here the ‘Arab Spring’ called the ‘Pearl’, was crushed by Saudi forces.

The tense situation between the two powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, naturally does not make a positive contribution to the region. Moreover, given the armed confrontation between the two countries in Syria and Yemen, their rivalry in the Persian Gulf countries is poisoning the world’s atmosphere and is not conducive to the establishment of friendly relations in this very important region for the entire world.

Victor Mikhin, a corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

The article originally appeared on Journal NEO