The unraveling of the Arab uprisings and the ensuing promise of peaceful democratic change has been accompanied or followed by one of the most significant developments in the non-Arab Middle East region—that is, the possible rapprochement between Iran and the United States. If the so-called “interim deal” between Iran and Western powers evolves into a steady normalization of relations between them, it could potentially bolster Iran’s geopolitical and geo-economic status in the region, which holds dramatic implications for U.S. allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. While Israel is afraid of Iran’s emerging economic and political powers as a major challenge to the former’s hegemony, Saudi Arabia deems the rapprochement between Iran and the West crucial not only to Iran’s rising political stature but also to the resurgence of sectarian competition in the region.
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. The Saudis’ concerns and fears about Iran’s heightened role in regional affairs are partly justified and partly overstated. Iran’s influence in neighboring Shia-majority countries, such as Iraq and Bahrain, poses a destabilizing, existential challenge to Saudi Arabia’s minority Shi’ites who live mostly in the north eastern part of the country. Nevertheless, just as its fear of Iran’s Shia revolutionary meddling in the region is somewhat overstated, so is its concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, given that Iran’s capacity to build a nuclear bomb has been overly exaggerated.
On the positive side, improving relations with Saudi Arabia entails significant implications for unstable locations throughout the region, specifically: Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria. The penetration of Al-Qaeda groups in Ramadi and Falluja has created a common threat to both Iran and Saudi Arabia, linking the Iraqi and Syrian crises; while Tehran has underscored the importance of improving relations with the Saudis. Although, these two countries have been at odds over regional issues for decades, including: energy politics, the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the U.S. presence in the region, and the external meddling in the fractious political environments of Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria; they both realize that festering distrust and sectarian and ideological competition between them could be detrimental to the region’s stability.
Syria is the latest and most perilous arena of competition and conflict between the two countries, with Iran supporting the Assad regime and the Shi’a Hezbollah pitted against Saudi-backed Sunni Muslim insurgents. Despite these lingering sectarian and emotional impediments, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have much to gain from ratcheting down the intense sectarian nature of their competition. The sectarianization of the region will no doubt continue to undermine the long-term interests of both countries and the broader region.
Pursuing common regional interests may be an effective first step in expanding regional cooperation on such issues as finding a mutually acceptable solution to the Syrian crisis. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani also hopes that the improvement of relations with one of the key regional U.S. allies would have a positive impact on possible future Iran-U.S. rapprochement. In the meantime, experts remind us that the United States will become self-sufficient in energy by 2030, as new drilling technologies, alternative fuels, and curtailing local consumption will dramatically reduce the need to import oil.
Moreover, as oil experts point out, the United States is likely to use oil from Mexico, Canada, and Venezuela if prices are fairly competitive. A key ramification of this 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. It is easy to understand why. This policy is bound to undermine the Saudis’ strategic status, especially as the Obama administration and future U.S. administrations may pivotally turn their attention to Asia. Israelis will face an emerging power broker, namely Iran, in the Persian Gulf region. 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.
Mahmood Monshipouri is an associate professor of international relations at San Francisco State University and a visiting associate professor at University of California at Berkeley.
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