Defusing Saudi-Iran Tension | Dr Muhammad Khan

It is a very welcoming decision of Pakistan that, Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief; General Raheel Sharif will visit Tehran and Riyadh to defuse the current row of tense relationship between two important Islamic countries. This step was indeed long awaited and finally taken in the best interest of larger Muslim Ummah. The current tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia has in fact divided the Muslim world largely. Both countries have been fighting proxy wars in a number of Muslim countries, exploiting the ideological differences. Whereas, they may have enlarged their sphere of influence, but weakened and divided the Muslim world.

As per Advisor to Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs, Mr Sartaj Aziz, “Pakistan is ready to play its role to defuse tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.” Pakistan has a strong feeling that with each passing day, the Saudi-Iran rivalry is further deepening and providing opportunities to terrorists and their supporters to further fuel this conflict. The current wave of high tension, where both withdrew their diplomatic missions has indeed no solid reasoning, had both respected each other’s sovereignty and integrity. Both countries have their own laws to deal with their internal and external challenges, which none should object. Had that criterion of non-interference been adhered, there would not have been any tension.

In the historical perspective, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are two of the main players in the Middle Eastern region and their relationship has remained quite frosty. It is a relationship, which has gone through tough times during the Shah’s period, reached a crisis point after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and what we see today is a breakpoint in it. During the time of the secular Shah, relations were relatively friendly and a visible degree of cooperation between the two states existed. In the contemporary time, alongside the American attack on Iraq and the Arab awakening, the Saudi – Iran rivalry is the main cause of the huge transformation, the region is going through. It can be argued that Iran-Saudi rivalry that has now turned into a regional cold war is, in fact, the main motor behind the conflicts, we are witnessing in the region today. Owing to their size, population, resources and influence in the region, security and politics in the Middle East is to a large extent conditioned by the way the Royal Kingdom and the Islamic Republic plays their cards.

The Iranian revolution was a turning point in the politics of Middle East. It radically transformed the political scenario of the region. Saudi Arabia replaced Iran as the policeman of the Gulf. While Iran faced diplomatic isolation in the region and in the world, the Saudis strengthened its relations with the US and the West. Thus, a fierce rivalry for domination began. For the past couple of decades, the oil-rich kingdom has enjoyed significant influence over its neighbors in the GCC and other players in the region. However, the Islamic Republic remains its strategic, political, diplomatic and economic rival. Iran controls the Persian Gulf and is a member of OPEC. It also has huge reserves of oil and gas and Iran, like Saudi Arabia, has historical, cultural and economic influence in the region. Furthermore, if Saudi Arabia is to be seen as having influence over Sunni Muslims world, Iran is seen as having greater influence on Shia Muslimism.

Presently both of the countries are very much locked in a Cold war due to differing interests in the region. It’s evident from the way both have responded developments that have swept the region recently. While Iran supported Morsi regime in Egypt, opposed foreign intervention in Libya, called for the rights of the minority Shiites in Baharian and stood firmly beside Assad and its proxies. Over the past decade, Iranian clout has increased in Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia on the other hand, supported Morsi’s removal from power, provides financial, military and diplomatic support to the Syrian opposition. Riyadh similarly has supported its proxies and sympathizers in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. Moreover, when Riyadh saw the Al-Khalifa’s rule weakening in Baharian, sent troops to quash the uprising there. Recently, the Saudi attack on Yemen has added more antagonism to the already frosty relations and now, the Yemen civil war is considered to be a proxy of Saudi Kingdom and Iran.

Tehran’s rivalry with Riyadh has presently spread into multiple areas. It is about strategic security and economic interests. It is about gaining the maximum influence in the region. It is also about the Sunni and Shiite ideology. In addition to all these factors, this rivalry is also about the leadership of the region. The political scenario that we are seeing in the region is quite clear. Both of the countries are trying to curtail each other’s influence and protect its strategic, economic and national interests in the region.

Chinese President Mr Xi Jinping is also undertaking his scheduled visit to both countries in next few days. Though his visit was scheduled prior to the current wave of tension between the Islamic Republic and the Kingdom, but, surely would pave the way for de-escalation and bringing of normalcy in the region. China has its geo-economic interests in the region and especially with Iran and Saudi Arabia. Unlike US, China will try to bring a balance in its relationship with both countries.

Parallel to the Chinese President’s visit, the visit of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief has attained a great significance for Tehran and Riyadh. Pakistani leadership must convince the Saudi and Iranian leadership that, strained relationship and proxies would not be in the benefit of any of these countries. Their mutual differences would allow the external forces to further exploit them, thus causing instability to the region. Let us hope that there prevail wisdom among Saudi and Iranian leadership for a better and cooperative relationship and Pakistani efforts prove fruitful at this crisis moment of Islamic World.

— The writer is International Relations analyst based in Islamabad.


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