Saudi Arabia's Challenge vs. Iran: Which Peace Design for the new Middle East ?

Posted in Other | 29-May-07 | Author: Jacob Eriksson

"King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has embarked on a very active and multifaceted diplomatic offensive, with a view to taking…
"King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has embarked on a very active and multifaceted diplomatic offensive, with a view to taking on the mantle of Sunni Arab leadership; this includes a Sunni ‘Marshall Plan’ to counteract the development of Shia communities on their doorstep."
In the new Middle East, developing violently since the invasion of Iraq by the US-led coalition in March 2003, Iran has firmly established itself as perhaps the main regional power. The Islamic Republic is the nation which has benefited the most from the bloodletting into which Iraq has descended. The various centres of power in Tehran have made excellent use of old Cold War strategies in their relations with Israel, the US, Saudi Arabia, the wider Sunni Arab world, and Iraqi insurgents. These include a belief in the primacy of nuclear weapons, spheres of influence, brinksmanship, and the use of proxies to fight their battles. Iranian ascendancy will not, however, be allowed to continue without challenge. These aforementioned actors have, with varying degrees of risk, different strategies to counter Iranian influence.

With Ehud Olmert’s government at a very low ebb, Israel faces some critical challenges. These include their continuing conflict with Hamas militants in Gaza, the potential of a renewed peace process containing Hezbollah and Palestinian groups in Lebanon, and formulating a sound policy towards Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The U.S. administration has had its wings severely clipped by its handling of Iraq, but still has a strong interest in regional developments. Efforts to seek a diplomatic solution to the current nuclear standoff with Iran will prove difficult, but can anyone afford to face the alternative?

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia may not yet perceive the existential threat that the Israelis do, but the generally deteriorating security situation could severely damage the internal stability of the monarchy, not to mention the wider Arab world. The kingdom’s new found role as the leader of the Arab Sunni states involves a variety of responsibilities, most important among them being to limit the spread of Iranian influence, and to spearhead multiple new peace initiatives among the Palestinians and Israelis.

A tangled web of wider conflict between all of these regional actors does, however, greatly complicate the situation, and the search for a general regional balance of power has the capacity to generate an even more precarious Middle East than the one we are currently confronted with. The importance of regional diplomacy cannot be overemphasised, but success is inherently difficult to achieve when one closely examines the dynamics at work.

Israel and the nuclear club

The Middle East is mostly a collection of self-help states. Israel’s security policy, for example, has always been based around the idea that it cannot rely on any other state to guarantee its security in the face of its surrounding Arab neighbours; neighbours who are always looking for new ways to ‘push her into the sea.’ This thinking is demonstrated not only by her massive conventional armed forces and citizen army system, but by the early initiation of her nuclear programme. The necessity of this option, the ultimate deterrent, is one of the cornerstones of the political realism so prevalent in the U.S. and USSR over the last 60 years. Iran seems to be formulating its policy along very similar lines. Not only is this capability perceived as important in terms of prestige and the cultivation of an external image of power, but also because it is, in all likelihood, seen as the means by which to guarantee security. Part of this is a response to (unofficial, but generally accepted) Israeli nuclear capability, but is also symptomatic of the quest for military power enshrined in traditional realist theory.

"While the initial attempts of the Saudis for a Palestine unity government have failed, it is imperative now that the…
"While the initial attempts of the Saudis for a Palestine unity government have failed, it is imperative now that the Saudis take an active role in this process."
Iran is playing the old game of brinksmanship, a favourite of the Eisenhower administration in the 1950’s, which brought the world to the brink of Armageddon during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Verbal condemnation from the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council Resolution calling for the suspension of uranium enrichment appears to them a mere annoyance; indeed, their disregard for the UN seems rivalled only by the neo-conservatives. Periods of increased rhetoric and tension have been cooled down with moves towards diplomatic initiatives which do not seem to move the situation any closer to resolution, but merely take the heat off Iran, temporarily obstructing any aggressive move by Israel or the West. How far can they push the Americans and the Israelis without incurring any real physical damage? This pattern of heightening tension and de-escalation is likely to continue. Continued diplomatic stalling could buy Iran the time needed to produce a nuclear device, which some analysts say could take as little as two years. Recent bilateral talks between Iran and the US, the first since the two broke off diplomatic relations in 1980, represent a very positive step, but only discussed Iraq, not Iran’s nuclear programme. Such confidence building measures are important, but will take a long time to yield any fruit.

An unfortunate effect of this apparently unquenchable thirst for nuclear power is a very real security dilemma. While Iran claims its nuclear programme is intended solely for peaceful purposes, non-compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), their persistent refusal to halt uranium enrichment as called for by Resolution 1737, and other circumstantial evidence collected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) invites serious doubts. Israel perceives a nuclear Iran to be an existential threat, which is perhaps not surprising after President Ahmadinejad’s repeated threats to wipe Israel off the map, referring to Israel as ‘a rotten, dried tree that will be eliminated by a single storm.’ In light of Israel’s nuclear policy – which has always run along the lines of ‘we will not be the first to introduce the use of nuclear weapons to the Middle East, but nor will we allow others to’ – the further advancement of Iran’s programme in the shadow of continued failure to reach a diplomatic solution creates serious tension.

Israel’s bombing of the Iraqi Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981 highlighted their regional policy of pre-emption, but the Iranian case poses a variety of difficulties. In his March briefing paper on the issue, Yossi Mekelberg of Chatham House explains that Israel alone does not possess the military capability to destroy all the fortified underground nuclear sites. The sites at Natanz and Esfahan would be primary targets, but the multitude of targets, the distances between them, logistics and a lack of aircraft mean that without American help, it would only be a temporary solution with possible devastating consequences. In retaliation, Iran could launch long range ballistic missile attacks against Israeli cities, U.S. military bases in the Gulf region, or U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which would inflame the Sunni-Shia divide. Furthermore, proxy actors such as Hezbollah would be called upon to intensify attacks against Israel, and could perhaps inspire other Islamic groups such as Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. Iran could also destabilize the region by stepping up support for Shia (and anti-American Sunni) militias in Iraq, worsening the coalition’s already fragile position. All told, it would be an act with dire repercussions for regional security.

The long standing feud with the house of Saud

A further concern stemming from this security dilemma is the heightened possibility of an arms race developing with the Arab states, primarily Saudi Arabia, but possibly also former regional heavyweights like Egypt. Any Iranian announcement of nuclear capability would spur the Saudis to respond in kind in order to balance power within the Islamic world. The steady stream of incendiary rhetoric emanating from Iran brings back unwelcome memories of a bitter historical chapter between the two which has resurfaced, emphasising the historical religious and political divisions which exist. While one really needs to go back 1,400 years to trace the roots of the Sunni-Shia split, a brief look at the last 40 odd years will suffice.

"Saudi Arabia's Challenge vs. Iran: Which Peace Design for the new Middle East ?"
"Saudi Arabia's Challenge vs. Iran: Which Peace Design for the new Middle East ?"
Following an oil embargo placed against Israel’s Western allies during the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, Saudi Arabia enjoyed a massive increase in oil revenues thanks to a reduced international supply and soaring prices. As Gilles Kepel explains in Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, these funds were used to assure Saudi hegemony over the Community of the Faithful by minimizing all nationalisms and disseminating the Wahhabi faith. The Muslim World League was set up to encourage Islamic charity associations, the building of mosques, and Koran distribution throughout the Muslim world to ensure development along Wahhabi doctrinal lines, sponsored by Mecca. Saudi dominance of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, established in 1969, further testifies to this.

The Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979, however, changed a lot of these trends. A rival current of Islam preached out of Tehran established itself and challenged the traditional Arab nationalistic view of the situations in occupied Palestine and Lebanon. Radical Islamic thought, based upon Ayatollah Khomeini’s example, served to inspire groups such as Hezbollah, and ‘awaken’ groups like the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, the latter an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Arab example had yielded few positive developments, whereas in Iran, a mighty jihad had successfully ousted the American sponsored shah, and the mujahideen in Afghanistan had brought the Soviet superpower to its knees. These were attractive examples of militant radicalisation; if such a strategy had previously defeated other foreign alien elements, the same could work against Israel, the Jewish anomaly perceived to be occupying Islamic land.

Tensions further heightened on a political scale during the Iran-Iraq war, when Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq financially in what was perceived as a war to stem Persian and Shia influence in the Middle East, and thereby mobilize Arab nationalism. Denigration of the Shia in the public Saudi sphere was ever-present throughout the 1980’s, and political anti-Shi’ism was the norm. The Iranians were also challenging Saudi dominance of one of the sacred ritual pillars of Islamic belief, the pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the hajj. In addition to mass pro-Khomeini rallies at the 1981 and 1982 pilgrimages which descended into violence, the Saudis and the Muslim World League suspected the Iranians of an attempt to storm and take over the Grand Mosque in 1987, and the ensuing violence left four hundred dead. Following an Iranian boycott of the pilgrimage with a declared aim of liberating Mecca from the Saud family, the Saudis profited from a war weary Iran and re-established control. Relations with Tehran improved during the more moderate leadership of Rafsanjani and later Khatami, but Ahmadinejad’s posturing looks too much like a regression back into ‘Khomeini-ism’ for King Abdullah’s taste.

Relations between the kingdom and the republic have, however, looked up lately. In the late April issue of Bitter Lemons International, Afshin Molavi described the diplomatic moves between the two as ‘a flurry of activity’, particularly before the Arab League summit in March. Ahmadinejad and his national security chief Ali Larijani were received in Riyadh, in addition to private visits by Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Javad Zarif, and the sons of former president Rafsanjani. These meetings have served as small confidence-building measures, but seem to have yielded little in the way of agreements or long standing results. This conclusion holds true for much of the recent regional diplomacy.

King Abdullah the peacemaker?

Realizing the possible devastating effects of current circumstances on regional Arab security, King Abdullah has embarked on a very active and multifaceted diplomatic offensive, with a view to take on the mantle of Sunni Arab leadership. At the Arab League meeting hosted in Riyadh in late March, when King Abdullah referred to the ‘illegitimate foreign occupation’ in Iraq, it was an attempt to distance himself from the traditional Saudi-U.S. alliance in order to appear more palatable to the wider Arab and Sunni world. American influence and credibility in the region has steadily diminished since the colossal failure of the neo-conservative democratic experiment designed to bring freedom to Iraq. The diplomacy of Condoleeza Rice has been dismissed as merely cosmetic, and the Saudis have picked up the torch.

 "Further Iranian non-compliance with the UN and IAEA should convince the five permanent members of the Security Council of the…
"Further Iranian non-compliance with the UN and IAEA should convince the five permanent members of the Security Council of the need for further sanctions. The effects should be used to achieve links between regional security issues and the nuclear program."
Diplomacy helped induce a temporary calm, as in Lebanon for example, where the militant Shi’ite group Hezbollah, supported by Iran, has been trying to oust the Western and Saudi backed government of Fouad Siniora. The Saudis brokered the Mecca Agreement in early March, which created a government of national unity comprising both Hamas and Fatah ministers. Further efforts to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process were also made at the March Arab League summit, with talk of an Arab Quartet (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Egypt) in the making to liaise with Israel. All eyes of course also focus on the civil war being fought along sectarian lines in Iraq. In early May, a two day conference on Iraq hosted in Sharm el-Sheikh saw top officials from the EU, the G8 countries, the permanent members of the Security Council, Iran, Syria and others meet to discuss power-sharing and security plans, and produce the International Compact for Iraq (ICI). The new plan aims to create political and economic stability within five years, stipulates reforms to promote national reconciliation, and promises U.S. debt relief of $30 billion.

Despite this diplomatic work by Saudi National Security Advisor Bandar bin Sultan, these multiple zones of instability have flared up again. The Palestinian unity government has collapsed after months of intense fighting between Hamas and Fatah forces, with Hamas taking full control of the Gaza Strip. President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) sacked Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and has sworn in a new emergency government based in the West Bank which completely excludes Hamas ministers. New Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the former finance minister with a vast body of experience at the International Monetary Fund and a penchant for fighting corruption by promoting transparency, has been granted the authority to rule without parliamentary approval, where Hamas holds a majority.

While naturally declared illegal by Hamas, the international community has widely accepted the new government, with the U.S. and the EU renewing promises of financial assistance, and Israel declaring it a viable ‘partner’ for peace. The peace process thus shows glimmers of hope, but is still extremely fragile after years of stagnation. Moreover, the security situation remains a primary concern in the West Bank, coupled with fears over the humanitarian situation in Gaza which stands to worsen if the Hamas controlled territory is completely isolated by Israel. A direr humanitarian outcome still is to be expected should Israel pursue a full scale military incursion in the Strip to eradicate ‘Hamastan’, a possibility which should not be altogether dismissed.

The political deadlock in Lebanon still remains, while violence has raged for weeks between government forces and Palestinian group Fatah al-Islam in Nahr al-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp just north of Tripoli. So far, more than 150 people have been killed, including at least 20 civilians, in the worst internal violence since the end of the civil war in 1990. Reports of rocket fire from this area into northern Israel highlights the risk of further regional escalation should Israel enter Gaza, as in June 2006, although new defence minister Ehud Barak has made it clear that he will not be unnecessarily provoked into another Lebanon war. Iraq remains rife with sectarian violence, and while the Saudis at Sharm el-Sheik effectively acknowledged that the Shia political order is unlikely to change, King Abdullah will not agree to billions of dollars of debt relief without more serious Iraqi government attempts to include and accommodate the nations Sunnis, says The Economist.

Real motives

Success in ironing out the above regional issues would be an immense achievement, but at this point in time these are not realistic goals, and the Saudis are aware of this. Of paramount importance to the Saudis is the fact that these diplomatic overtures serve as a way of limiting Iran’s sphere of influence in traditional Arab affairs. Therefore, despite initial failure, the Saudis should continue to play the role of the mediator.

Iran gained a lot of kudos last summer when Hezbollah resisted Israeli military operations in Lebanon, seen as a victory over the most powerful army in the Middle East. Iranian funding and weaponry has proven an important part of the conflict equation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Lebanon and most notably Iraq, where Tehran seeks to strike further blows against the American administration. American public opinion, reeling from the Iraq debacle, is unlikely to support a new military campaign against Iran. Furthermore, Ahmadinejad visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in mid-May, the first Iranian head of state ever to do so. Discussions focused mainly on security co-operation and trade; the UAE is Iran’s largest trading partner, and wishes to keep it that way. American vice president Dick Cheney was visiting just a few days before, pushing a clear anti-Iran agenda. In a similar vein, the Saudis seek to stem Iranian power, particularly in the Gulf.

To the Saudis, limiting Iranian influence in Iraq is the top priority. Saddam Hussein was a threatening neighbour, but his Sunni dictatorship was the linchpin holding Iraq together, and was the lesser of all evils when considering the current state of affairs. With a formerly oppressed Shia majority in government, King Abdullah looks to prevent Iranian hegemony and the presence of a radical Shia state on its border. He is acutely aware of what Vali Nasr of the Council on Foreign Relations dubs ‘the Shia revival.’ The monarchy fears any uprising by an empowered Shia minority population in its eastern oil-rich provinces of Hasa and Qatif, who have historically been severely repressed by the Saud family. Examples include the desecration of tombs of Shia imams, forcible conversion to Wahhabism, and complete exclusion from access to any wealth generated by oil. Similar historical tensions exist in Bahrain, a predominantly Shia population, and the rise of the Shia in Iraq has prompted protests in both Gulf states against their lack of rights and political exclusion. The potential for further sectarian tension is indeed high.

When American and British forces leave Iraq, and one day they inevitably will, sectarianism and civil war will remain. With the Democrats in control of the House of Representatives and Congress, with the White House possibly soon to come, this reality could materialise sooner rather than later. The Saudis have hinted that in such an event they will intervene actively to support the Iraqi Sunni movement against Shia aggrandisement sponsored by Iran. On many unofficial levels, this is already the case. Writing for Bitter Lemons International in April, Toby Jones describes a situation where Riyadh has failed to silence powerful Wahhabi clerics such as Saffar al-Hawali, Nasr al-Umar, and Abdallah bin Jibreen, who have been repeatedly calling for an upsurge in violence against the Shia apostates, both within the kingdom and in Iraq. Saudi fighters motivated and mobilized by such calls continue to stream across the border into Iraq.

Iraq: a proxy civil war?

An exit of the Multinational Force in Iraq opens the door for a deadly proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. There is little doubt as to the explosiveness of the Sunni-Shia divide and its continuing capacity to shape and define Middle Eastern politics. Whether or not Iraqi Sunnis and Shias will be able to be controlled by Riyadh and Tehran respectively is another matter.

Iraq has descended into a series of extremely fractured regional power struggles between many different communities and groups, all with their own agendas. The Sunni and Shia communities are not united, monolithic blocs; they are internally factionalised and conflict within and between these groups based on sectarian, tribal or ethnic affiliations is common. Many different security dynamics currently divide these groups. As Gareth Stansfield of Chatham House has outlined in his May briefing, there is the general struggle for control of the state government between Shia and Sunnis, prevalent in Baghdad; there is the struggle over the design of the future state between unity or federalism, creating conflict between the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shia; there is the Sunni-US conflict in the Sunni triangle; there is the Shia-US/UK conflict in the south; there is conflict in the Sunni triangle between Sunni tribes and other Sunni Islamist movements such as al-Qaeda in Iraq; there is violence between al-Qaeda and local Iraqi Sunni Islamist movements such as Ansar al-Sunna; and there is violence between Sadrist groups and the Iranian sponsored Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq in and around Basra and Najaf.

Within this amazingly complex range of civil wars, the Saudis and Iranians will continue to strengthen their respective tribes. Without a Western foreign element for some groups to rally against, the Sunni-Shia dynamic will take centre stage, and has the potential to destabilize the entire Gulf region. Engagement between Sunnis and Shias, initiated by their regional sponsors, would be a step in the right direction. The perilous effects of tribalism and identity based conflict are patent. Just ask the Palestinians, the Somalis, the Rwandans or the Bosnians.

Conclusions and recommendations

It is very easy to be pessimistic about the future of the Middle East. Multiple conflicts continue to rage, and as they are identity based, are extremely difficult to resolve. But the regional powers must try to do so through diplomacy.

  • As the Saudis used their economic stature to further their preferred brand of Islam against Teheran in the 1970’s, they are now using their vast wealth to sponsor Sunni movements across the Middle East in a type of Sunni ‘Marshall Plan’ to counteract the development of Shia communities on their doorstep. While preserving the status quo, they must also seek to improve regional relations by engaging in further diplomacy.

  • While their initial attempts at a Palestinian unity government and renewed negotiations with Israel have failed, it is imperative that the Saudis now take an active stance in this process. A newly declared Palestinian government, representing not only a physical but also an ideological separation between the West Bank and Gaza, can create interesting conditions for new peace initiatives, but can also become an entrenched battleground for a prolonged Palestinian civil war. Continued dialogue between Olmert and Abbas, together with the mobilisation of an Arab Quartet to sit down with the Israelis is a good start, but the Palestinians also need to be engaged by the Arab states to discuss possible permanent solutions to the current civil war. Egypt, for example, hardly relishes the thought of a territory controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood at its border. Moreover, such a territorial entity isolated by the rest of the world will move closer toward Tehran, who will undoubtedly offer support in any way possible. It remains to be seen how pragmatic Hamas will prove in the resolution of this crisis.

  • Further Iranian non-compliance with the UN and IAEA should convince the permanent five members of the Security Council, particularly China and Russia, of the need for further sanctions. If new meetings between negotiators of the permanent five, Germany, and Iran do not lead to any understanding, the former should try to exploit weaknesses within the internal Iranian domestic political agenda. The Iranian parliament, the Majlis, voted in December 2006 to hold new presidential elections alongside parliamentary elections, thereby shortening Ahmadinejad’s term. This is reflective of unfulfilled election promises to improve the economy, and perhaps a more moderate population than is usually assumed. Predominantly an oil and gas economy hungry for foreign investment, stricter economic sanctions like bans on international loans and a further freezing of assets, can serve to accentuate the negative consequences of such an aggressive foreign policy.

  • The effects of such sanctions should be used as leverage to achieve linkage between regional security issues and the nuclear programme, something which is currently dismissed by Iran. If such an initiative could result in new meetings between America, Saudi Arabia, the GCC states, Syria, and Iran, as at Sharm el-Sheik, preferably with some preliminary meetings to act as confidence-building measures, it would be a positive development. This could be a very important step towards regional understandings to improve relations with the Gulf States, crucial for any effort to calm down the sectarian tensions in Iraq. Bilateral talks between Iranian and American representatives are signs of positive progress, as the Bush administration seems to reluctantly accept that complete isolation of Iran will not help stem the crisis. The topic of discussion, however, needs to broaden beyond Iraq. Ideally, this would be accomplished by Iran minimizing its support for insurgents and the U.S. admitting to have followed an erroneous policy in the region. This is, however, unlikely. Both must move beyond these initial positions and agree to further talks.

  • Failing a regional conference, Saudi Arabia should continue previous dialogue with Lebanese parties to soothe tensions. Maintaining a position as a primary intermediary in Lebanon would strengthen their regional hand, and dialogue with Hezbollah could provide a back channel for relations with Tehran to help stem the worsening security situation in Iraq. Such a channel could also help the Saudis serve as a potential contact between the U.S. and Iran, should international efforts yield no results and the new bilateral talks fail to continue.