By Mohammad Mazhari

Iran takes upper hand over Saudi Arabia when it comes to West Asia: Analyst

October 9, 2021 - 11:52

TEHRAN - Chief executive officer of Gulf State Analytics (GSA) says that Iran is ascendancy over its Saudi opponent in west Asia.

"Whether we're discussing Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, or Palestine, it is easy to argue that Iran has taken the upper hand over Saudi Arabia when it comes to important power struggles," Giorgio Cafiero tells the Tehran Times.

 "Nowhere more than in neighboring Yemen has Saudi Arabia felt so humiliated by a force that many officials in Riyadh and Washington view as an Iranian proxy," he adds. "This weak position concerning Yemen that Saudi Arabia has found itself in is a major factor contributing to Riyadh's diplomatic outreach to Tehran."

Following is the text of the interview:

How do you assess Iran-Saudi Arabia's tension-easing talks? What are the challenges and opportunities?

It is healthy for the Middle East (West Asia) that at various points throughout 2021, there have been talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Baghdad and elsewhere. To expect such dialogue to quickly lead to a full rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh or the beginning of a friendly and warm relationship would be naïve. Nonetheless, these talks have the potential to enable Iran and Saudi Arabia to find ways to decrease and better manage existing tensions in bilateral relations.

As many analysts have argued, Yemen is most likely the first place in the region where Tehran would be willing to make some concessions in exchange for the Saudi Kingdom making its own concessions to the Islamic Republic. The possibility of Tehran using its influence in Yemen to push the Houthis away from their current actions if Riyadh agrees to re-normalize relations with the Syrian government might be one starting point that could be built on later.

If there is a major improvement in relations between Tehran and Riyadh, it will likely require a significant amount of time. For decades much bitterness, distrust, and vitriol have come to shape Iranian-Saudi relations. Overcoming this history of extremely negative relations can't happen quickly. There are also many delicate issues in the Middle East (West Asia) that pit the Iranians and Saudis against each other as opposing stakeholders. To the point, both sides should proceed with these talks patiently.

Why does Iraq persist in playing a mediator role between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

 Iraq has vested interests in maintaining good relations with all its neighbors and helping countries in the region defuse their tensions. Any direct military confrontation that involves Iran could easily fuel chaos and bloodshed in Iraq. After decades of war, sanctions, and occupation, the Iraqis do not want another destabilizing war in the Middle East (West Asia) to subject their country to more suffering and misery. Baghdad can facilitate productive dialogue that bodes well for regional stability. Iraq's leadership is keen to step up as a diplomatic player in the Middle East (West Asia). The Iraqi president's roles in mediating the Jordanian-Syrian rapprochement and bringing Egypt and Syria closer are two other cases.

 How do you see the Saudis' position in the Persian Gulf in light of their failure to defeat the Houthis, especially once the U.S. reluctance to support this war?

Whether we're discussing Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, or Palestine, it is easy to argue that Iran has taken the upper hand over Saudi Arabia when it comes to important power struggles. Nowhere more than in neighboring Yemen has Saudi Arabia felt so humiliated by a force that many officials in Riyadh and Washington view as an Iranian "proxy." This weak position concerning Yemen that Saudi Arabia has found itself in is a major factor contributing to Riyadh's diplomatic outreach to Tehran.

"Iran has taken the upper hand over Saudi Arabia when it comes to important power struggles."At this juncture, there seems to be a healthy realization in Saudi Arabia that President Barack Obama was correct in 2016 when he spoke about Riyadh and Tehran's need to find ways to share the region, highlighted by Saudi Arabia's increasingly pragmatic foreign policy in 2021. By ending the blockade of Qatar, improving relations with Turkey, talking to Iran, and making gradual overtures to Syria's government, throughout this year, the Saudis have been busy pursuing more diplomatic approaches to countries that Riyadh has had big problems within recent years. This is a marked contrast from the foreign policy agenda that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) pursued during the Trump years in which Saudi Arabia was far more bellicose and aggressive in the region.

  Do you believe the U.S., under the Biden presidency, is following Obama's policy of sharing the region between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

 Like the Obama administration, the current administration of Joe Biden has focused on a major geopolitical pivot away from the Middle East (West Asia) toward Asia to counter China's ascendancy. The Quad (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) and AUKUS (the trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) are some of the hallmarks of this pivot. Within this context, the Biden administration would like to see Iran and Saudi Arabia lower temperatures in their relationship while finding ways to share the region. The White House wants fewer sources of tension in the Middle East (West Asia) that could spark a new conflict that would make Washington feel obligated to intervene at the expense of the U.S.'s ability to shift resources eastward.

From Saudi Arabia's perspective, the United States is no longer seen as a reliable ally. Do you think the Saudis will resort to diversifying their alliances with other superpowers via consolidation of ties with China and even Russia?

 Riyadh is looking to diversify its security partnerships following years of various blunders in U.S. foreign policy, which have been causing the Saudis to question further the wisdom of depending so much on Washington for the Kingdom's security. The deepening of Saudi Arabia's relationships with Beijing and Moscow takes place against the backdrop of major trust issues that have weakened the Saudi-U.S. partnership- issues that China and Russia have carefully and skillfully taken advantage of to advance their own foreign policy agendas. But there is no indication that either China or Russia would be interested in replacing the U.S. as a security guarantor for Saudi Arabia and other western-aligned Arabian monarchies of the Persian Gulf. Some experts contend that Saudi Arabia's moves to strengthen its ties with China and Russia are mostly designed to gain greater leverage in its relationship with Washington, not actually abandon the partnership with the U.S. in favor of new ones with Beijing and/or Moscow.

 Amid discussions about Saudi Arabia diversifying its defense and security relations, it is important to consider that Beijing and Moscow are both on positive terms with Tehran. Saudis are fully aware that neither the Chinese nor Russians would side against Iran anywhere as much as the U.S. has since 1979. In other words, if either China or Russia became a security guarantor for monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula, they would balance their ties with those Arab states with Iran, unlike the U.S., which has basically instinctively backed Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members against the Islamic Republic.

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