Saudi-Iran Struggle and the Syrian Proxy War can only be Resolved by Diplomacy

(By Robert Mason)

The current foreign policy tensions between Iran
and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) pivot around Iran’s
nuclear programme, ideology (the relative balance between
revolutionary/resistance ideology and pragmatism), sectarianism, territorial
disputes (such as over the islands of Abu Musa, Greater and Lesser Tunb) and
alliances with state and non-state actors. Iranian foreign policy is premised
on negative historical events that have highlighted its insecurity, from the
British and Soviet invasion in 1941 to uneven international support during the
Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, and US containment policies imposed by the Clinton
administration in the 1990s and extended by the UN Security Council.

To narrow the broad range of foreign policy
challenges being faced by the Gulf states, it is necessary to focus on the most
contentious issues: Syria, the nuclear tensions which heighten fears of
unbridled Iranian support for an active “Shia Crescent” from the
Levant through the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, and the impact
of President Obama’s support for more normalised relations with Iran on Saudi
foreign policy calculations.

On Syria, Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and
Qatar have been engaged in competing for influence over Syrian opposition
groups. Saudi Arabia has been supporting the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – in stark
contrast to Iran’s support for the Assad regime – but is also attempting to
buttress the Lebanese military with a $3 billion grant. By doing so, it reduces
the likelihood of provoking another retaliation by the Israel Defence Force
(IDF), like the invasion of southern Lebanon in 2006. It also provides some
form of constraint to Hezbollah’s actions in Syria, and more broadly constrains
Iran’s second-strike capability.

Only recently has King Abdullah attempted to rein
in Saudi influence in Syria by preventing Saudi jihadists from fighting with
groups such as the Al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria) and the
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). However, this proscription simply
reflects increasing concern that fighters return and destabilise the Kingdom,
rather than any strategic concern over the form of interaction with Syrian
opposition forces. Weapons and training are still flowing into Syria from Saudi
Arabia and Qatar, soon to be joined by more support from western allies. However,
more needs to be done to resolve the sectarian dimension of the conflict. Diplomats
such as
warn about supporting an exclusive Sunni opposition against
al-Assad, pointing to concerns about extremists gaining power, and preferring
containment instead.

The Iranian nuclear programme is a particularly
important point of tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh seeks to
ratchet up the pressure on Iran in an attempt to resolve the impasse one way or
another. The Kingdom has used a range of rhetoric to highlight its position on
this challenge and the Syrian conflict, ranging from Prince Turki Al Faisal
outlining alternative options such as negotiating a Weapons of Mass Destruction
Free Zone in the Middle East (WMDFZME) – a plan which would also pressurize
Israel to declare its nuclear programme and commit to arms control and
reductions – to foregoing an offer for a non-permanent seat in the UN Security
Council. In May 2014, Saudi Arabia moved to illustrate its dissatisfaction in
this area by carrying out its largest-ever
, with the participation of Pakistan, a close ally and potential
nuclear guarantor.

Some degree of triangulation is necessary to
accurately contextualise GCC-Iranian relations, and to a great extent this is
the USA. Not only is the US a local power in the Gulf region and largely
depended on for Gulf security, but it is also the global actor that has
impinged most on Iranian foreign policy. Should the Obama administration allow
more normalised relations with Tehran to occur, through a broadened agenda for
the nuclear negotiations currently led by the P5+1, the US-Iran relationship
will be perceived by Riyadh not only to threaten its special relationship with
the US government, but also to come at the cost of Saudi regional influence. 

By addressing these points, a
re-conceptualisation of Gulf interests could contribute to efforts at conflict
resolution, a reduction of anxiety over the rebalancing of regional power, and
therefore the normalisation of regional policies beyond containment. It could
also find ways to address sectarian issues in a period of turbulence and
uncertainty. In summary, there are ways to reconcile apparently disparate and
zero-sum GCC and Iranian foreign policy rationales in order to engage more
constructively on regional and international issues. Some states such as Oman
and the UAE are already making efforts in this regard, and with face-to-face
meetings scheduled to take place between President Rouhani and King Abdullah,
further progress in this area could soon be made.

About the author

Dr Robert Mason is Lecturer in International Relations at the British University in Egypt. His forthcoming book is entitled Foreign Policy in Iran and Saudi Arabia: Economics and Diplomacy in the Middle East (I B Tauris).

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.

Mirrored from Open Democracy


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One response

  1. The author fails to make one point clear: The US has been a consistent, long-term ally of Saudi Arabia while being a consistent, long-term enemy of Iran. While Saudi Arabia has produced scores of suicide-bombers and supported many of the most fundamentalist Islamist groups, Iran has not produced any suicide-bombers and its main “proxy”, Hezbollah, is deeply integrated into the social and political fabric of Lebanon.

    Saudi Arabia’s primary objective concerning Iran has been plain for a long time. Consider: ”Dealing with Arab and Israeli leaders on the Palestinian issue must have been eye-opening for…president [Obama]. Publicly Arab rulers pressed him on Palestine, but privately all they wanted to talk about was defanging Iran (the same is true of the Israelis)….When Obama met Abdullah in Riyadh in June 2009, most of the hour-long meeting was taken up with a royal lecture on the Iranian threat. The Saudi king wanted America to fix the Iranian problem, not the Palestinian one, and he did not want any linkages between the two issues. In that, the king and Netanyahu were on the same page.” link to

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