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Saudi Arabia Versus Iran

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The media has recently reported an overture by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal to his Iranian counterpart Jawad Zarif to visit Riyadh. While the gesture may represent a tentative thaw in the often frosty relationship between the two energy giants in the Middle East, it certainly implies a modification in Saudi policy toward Iran. The relations between the two countries were more equable when the Pahlavi monarchy ruled Iran. But this changed dramatically with the advent of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which ushered in the clerical regime headed by Imam Khomeini. Here you had Shia Iran (Islam's minority sect) controlling a large oil-rich country with visions of exporting its version of Islam to other Islamic countries. On the other side, you have Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, whose monarchy, the Al-Saud family, espouses an austere and puritanical version of Sunni Islam (the majority sect). An ideological clash was inevitable. In 1987, a group of Iranian pilgrims performing the annual hajj clashed with Saudi security forces. A substantial number of pilgrims were killed and injured. The tragic event embittered relations between the two rivals for domination in the Islamic world. The Saudis, not unexpectedly, supported Arab Iraq versus Shia Iran in the 8-year Iran-Iraq War. The fact that all Arab countries except Syria had lined up behind Saddam who had reportedly initiated the war, furthered the divide between the Arab countries and non-Arab Iran.

There is hardly any doubt that apart from its strategic location on the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, Iran with a population of 80 million and an annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 1 trillion dollars is more than a match for Saudi Arabia, whose GDP is higher but whose population excluding the 30 percent expatriates living in the kingdom, is around 19 million. Moreover, Iran is quite a bit further ahead educationally and technologically compared to Saudi Arabia. Most observers would agree that Iran is the more powerful country compared to Saudi Arabia poised for regional hegemon status in the Middle East. Theoretically, if a military conflict was to break out between the two, the odds would overwhelmingly favor Iran, regarding who would be the victor.

Iran has been in the bad books of the United States and the west for its strident political rhetoric, its anti-Zionist diatribes and its nuclear program which is suspected to be a cover for Iran's efforts to master the manufacture of nuclear weapons. The election of the more pragmatic and pliable Hassan Rouhani as president last June has changed some of these perspectives. Interestingly enough, Saudi Arabia and Israel, who do not have diplomatic relations, are united in their desire to stop Iran achieving its nuclear ambitions. Both countries were hopeful that the United States would pay heed to their frequent pleas exhorting it to launch a military strike on Iran's nuclear installations. It seems to me that after the less than optimum results achieved by the U.S. in its attempts to pacify Iraq and Afghanistan, public opinion would be wary of another military adventure launched by Washington against Tehran. The United States has, so far, opted for diplomatic negotiations with Iran on reaching a negotiated solution regarding its nuclear program. This process is on-going and may take many months before success or failure will be seen. Saudi verbal attacks against Iran have continued in the past few months. Also Saudi irritation at what they consider the U.S. inaction on Iran had become palpable. President Obama journeyed to Riyadh to assuage King Abdullah's concerns concerning Iranian ambitions. I personally doubt if he was very successful in doing this. The Saudi nightmare is that the U.S. will normalize its relations with Iran after a successful negotiation on the nuclear issue, which would inevitably relegate US-Saudi relations to a lower level. If the above surmise is accurate, it would explain Saudi outbursts on the subject. And since these fulminations have not achieved the desired result, the Saudis seemed to have changed tack. The Al-Saud-Zarif parleys when they take place will determine if a modus vivendi between the two rival powers can be achieved.

Iran also has some potent cards to play against Saudi Arabia or other Arab countries which choose to display animosity toward it. Iran could, for instance, call upon for support its fellow co-religionists in Lebanon, especially the formidable Hizbullah militia, Bashar al-Assad's Alawite Shia dominated government, the Shia majority in Bahrain, and not to forget the Shia minority in Eastern Saudi Arabia. Ironically, it is that portion of Saudi Arabia which is especially rich in oil resources.

The invitation to Zarif by the Saudi Foreign minister appears to be a wise move. It would not only reduce tension and misgiving between the two countries, but also give an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to see if Iran could be moved away from supporting Bashar al-Assad's Syria, and not encouraging Saudi Shias against Riyadh. Just as Southeast Asian countries must willy-nilly adjust to the rise of China, the Arab world also has to recognize Iran as a rising power in the Middle East.