Saudi Arabia and Iran at a Crossroads

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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Last month the P5+ 1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany) signed an interim deal with Iran that will come into effect on January 20. The agreement foresees the freezing of much of Iran’s nuclear program in return for easing of international sanctions on Iran. Despite regional skepticism surrounding the agreement, there are some who see the deal as a good first step that could pave way for broader and deeper cooperation. Two issues have been especially the subject of much speculation in the regional newspapers. First, what made the agreement possible; and second, what are its implications for other countries in the region.

Asharq Alawsat’s Shahir Shahid Saless argues that the agreement was made possible by Iran’s desire to break out of the current isolation, as well as the United States’ shift in some of its positions: “the Geneva Accord is not only the product of sanctions on Iran; the re-positioning of American policies has also played a prominent role…. The question remains as to whether or not normal relations are possible between the US and Iran. Extreme and long-standing distrust between the two countries, and internal political forces opposing reconciliation within both, are among factors which project a rocky road. But there are indications that Iran is looking at the current process of engagement with America beyond the existing nuclear issue. Perhaps the US departure from its decades-old policy toward Iran’s nuclear program also points to a similar goal.”

Likewise, in an article posted on Al Arabiya, Camelia Entekhabi-Fard argues that Iran is using the nuclear program as a bargaining chip in return for a greater role in the region: “Khamenei’s comment regarding the U.S.’s hostility towards Iran can only be interpreted as a threat of Iran’s withdrawal from nuclear talks. It seems that the situation in Syria and the presence of a government that is friends with the regime in Tehran is more important for Khamenei than sealing a nuclear deal with Western powers….there’s a mutual interest for Iran and the U.S. — for Israel’s and Hezbollah’s sake — to shake hands and resolve the crisis in Syria. According to this, Iran is significant to U.S. interests. Iran agrees to the nuclear agreement for the sake of restraining its controversial nuclear program and playing a bigger and more official role in the region.”

The Saudi Gazette editorial, on the other hand, suggests that for the agreement to have been acceptable to the Iranian government it must have included a secret clause which, according to the Saudi daily, meant the true findings of the IAEA inspectors would never become public: “it seems almost certain that through the analysis of records and the movement of fissile materials, the IAEA inspectors are going to find the evidence….Therefore, if the weaponization program does indeed exist, they could well find their way to the key hidden facility where the deadly work is being undertaken. This raises an interesting question about the Geneva talks that got us to this point. If everybody at the negotiations actually already knew that Iran was making the bomb, was there a secret side-agreement that when, inevitably, evidence of the program was found, the IAEA inspectors would not make their findings public?”

Still, what all of this means for Arab News’ Abdulateef Al-Mulhim is that the ball is now in Iran’s court and that it can no longer use the unwillingness of the international community to engage with it as an excuse: “Tehran has a golden opportunity under President Hassan Rowhani to turn a new leaf and improve its ties with its neighbors. Iran has a very rich culture with thousands of years of rich history. It is rich with many natural resources such as oil and gas. Iran has the potential to increase economic trade with its neighbors. Iran is known for its rugs, caviar and saffron. Iran can export these products to the Gulf markets, which will help its crumbling economy. The ball is now in Iran’s court. It is at a crossroads. It is up to Tehran either to tread a path that will ensure the well being of its people or continue with its dirty tricks to foment unrest in other countries.’

In the crowded geostrategic arena that is the Middle East, such shifts, however subtle they may be, are not without consequence for other countries in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, which has not been shy about expressing its misgivings. No wonder, then, that in an article for Al Arabiya, Bulent Aras suggests that the Saudis, together with other regional powers like Turkey and the UAE, begin reconsidering their strategic alliances: “The region is shifting towards a new geopolitics of flexible alliances….Turkey, UAE and Saudi Arabia would make a good initial grouping for initiating a course for visionary planning and constructive action in the region. The alternative is facing the prospects of failed individual action and becoming even more deeply mired in the vicious cycle of flexible alliances.”

In an op-ed for the  Daily Star (Lebanon), May Yamani explains why the Saudis would have misgivings regarding the recent changes that have taken place around them: “During the three years of political upheaval in the Middle East since the ‘Arab Spring’ began, Saudi Arabia has attempted to maintain its dominant status in the region by any means necessary….The question for the Saudi royals now is this: Will the U.S. merely be indifferent to their deepest fears, or will American policy in the region actually aggravate these fears? Iran will be the litmus test for Saudi-U.S. relations in 2014 and beyond….The issue for the Saudis is not merely Iran’s putative nuclear capability. A deal on Iran’s nuclear program would legitimize the regime’s regional influence in a way that has not occurred in decades, thereby serving its hegemonic objectives. The deeper threat or fear is that Iran’s ultimate target is leadership of Mecca, the cradle of Islam.”

Michael Young, the editor in chief of the UAE daily The National, cautions the Saudis against an aggressive posture, so as not to appear hostile to peace and stability in the region: “Even in the Saudis’ immediate zone, the Gulf, the kingdom’s skepticism has not necessarily been shared. Both Kuwait and Qatar welcomed the nuclear deal with Iran. Qatar’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying it would enhance peace and security in the region, an opinion that must have made the Saudis groan…..With many Gulf states, the U.S. and Europe welcoming the opening to Iran, the Saudis cannot be seen to be taking a contrary position, especially through actions that exacerbate sectarian hostility. That explains why the kingdom has shifted its behavior in Syria and Lebanon, even as it continues its efforts to gain the upper hand in Syria. Balancing its different objectives will be tricky, but Riyadh can see that much is changing around it.”

The Iranians, for their part, are putting on a more friendly face, even though threats are not far from the surface. Mahmood Monshipouri, an Iranian academic writing in the Iranian daily The Tehran Times, suggests that both Saudi Arabia and Iran have more to win from a cooperative relationship, especially given the rapid pace of change in the regional balance of power: “As a key regional competitor of Saudi Arabia, Iran figures prominently in Saudi security interests and concerns.  The same is true when it comes to Iran’s regional geostrategic considerations, especially considering the political uncertainties in the context of the post-Arab Spring uprisings….A key ramification of [a US] oil independence policy might very well be that the United States cuts down on its military commitments in the Persian Gulf region.  This will be a scary proposition for both Saudi Arabia and Israel….This policy is bound to undermine the Saudis’ strategic status…. Under such circumstances, the Saudis will do well if they reconsider their hostile relations with their neighbor to the east, Iran.  It is in this context that U.S.-Iran rapprochement, if it resumes, could open new possibilities and approaches in coming years.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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