Saudi Arabia and Iran – The Fight For Regional Influence

Iran vs KSA by Jalal Hajir

On January 16, 2016 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed the compliance of Iran on all steps leading to the implementation of the Iran Nuclear Deal. Labelled as an agreement to avoid Iran’s acquisition of nuclear capability that can be used for military purposes, the deal turned out to have a bigger impact on the American-Iranian relations.

Back in 2002, former US president Georges W. Bush declared Iran a major player in the “Axis of Evil” along with Iraq and North Korea. At that time, Iran was facing continuous escalating sanctions that started back in 1979; and ruled by a Mohammad Khatami who was unable to deliver his internal promises on freedom of expression and reform, while showing no expertise in foreign affairs.

That opened the door for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose policy was towards defying the international community led by the US administration. Escalation, threats, enrichment, repression, sanctions, internal conflicts, were all associated to the new president who faced domestic protests and questioning on corruption activities, which drew international negative attention on Iran.

Arab Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia kept a diplomatic neutrality with Iran, preferring to indirectly communicate with their Shia neighbour on hostile grounds in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. As long as the western countries were in conflict with Iran, they had nothing to reproach or fear. As soon as Ahmadinejad was out, secret bilateral talks started in Oman between American and Iranian officials, which led in the summer of 2015 to an official agreement on Iran’s nuclear program in Vienna.

From this point, Iran had 6 months to prove its peaceful intentions while coping various incitements from Saudi Arabia to sabotage the agreement at any cost.

And it hit them hard.

Attempt #1: Saudi military intervention in Yemen took a regional exposure, expecting an Iranian retaliation that will set ablaze the Gulf of Aden. Failed.

Attempt #2: Another escalation occurred when 500 Iranian pilgrims died in Mina’s stampede, with mystery surrounding the incident, Saudi officials refrained from providing information to Iran, even blaming the pilgrims for the incident. Failed

Attempt #3: Diplomatic reshuffling by the appointment of former Saudi ambassador to the United States Adel Al-Jubair as the new minister of foreign affairs, with a mission to persuade the Americans to reconsider the Iran deal. Failed.

Attempt #4: Continuous media defamation as both Saudi Arabia and Iran led a campaign of fabricated stories aiming at discrediting each side’ allegations. Failed.

Attempt #5: In December, as time was running, Saudi Arabia hastily formed a coalition of Muslim countries in face of Iran under the pretext of “combatting terrorism”. Failed.

Attempt #6: On January 1st 2016, Saudi Arabia took extreme measures and maybe used its last bullet to sabotage the deal by executing Nimr Al-Nimr, a Saudi Shia cleric whose death led to public demonstrations in many countries around the region. Embassies became battlefields as Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Teheran, on which the Kingdom retaliated by bombing the Iranian embassy in Yemen. Again, it failed to jeopardize the nuclear deal.

Nevertheless, Americans always look at the bright side of things especially if its for their own long-term benefit, and the Iran Nuclear Deal was one historic opportunity.

Cuba for example was on an embargo since 1960, but didn’t pose a threat anymore to the US continent, on the contrary they opened new channels of discussions by lifting sanctions, allowing travel and trade. This was a prelude for an official visit of the US president to the island, scheduled in 2016 or at the funeral of Fidel Castro.

Anyhow, Americans saw a win-win situation with the Iran deal, on a political level it will appease to some extent Israel’s worries, and grant Iran a prominent role in stabilizing Iraq. On a security level, Iran is aligned with the US/EU concerns on combatting “Islamic terrorism”, something Saudi Arabia was unable to promise or deliver. Economically, it is expected to open new opportunities for oil export, investment in precious metals, and a massive business trade.

Even with the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions, doing business in Iran may be challenging. But the country’s strategic location, domestic growth prospects and significant resources are compelling draw cards (White & Case)

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