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Iran’s Relations with Saudi Arabia Enter Transition Phase | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Flames rise from Saudi Arabia’s embassy during a demonstration in Tehran January 2, 2016. REUTERS

London- Are Iran and Saudi Arabia on their way to easing tension in relations? This is the question that the Iranian media have grappled with for several weeks. The contradictory answers lead to a fishtail: Maybe yes, maybe no!

“Iran has every interest in reducing tension with Saudi Arabia at a time when the Trump presidency in the United States is creating new uncertainties,” the daily Entekhab, which supports President Hassan Rouhani, said in an editorial last week.

For its part the daily Etemaad, another pro-Rouhani organ, claimed that “high-ranking security and political officials in Tehran welcomed the decline in tension” with the Saudi kingdom.

The daily Arman cited another reason for “reduction in tension” between Tehran and Riyadh by highlighting a message of condolence sent by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz to the family of Iran’s former President Hashemi Rafsanjani who passed away last month. Rafsanjani had always campaigned for closer ties with Riyadh.

At the other end of the Iranian political spectrum, the daily Kayhan, a vocal opponent of Rouhani, noted in an editorial on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia has advised Trump not to cancel the so-called deal on Iran’s nuclear project.

Speculation regarding a possible thaw between Tehran and Riyadh reached its peak with the lightening visit to Tehran by the Kuwaiti Foreign Minister who conveyed a “special message” to Rouhani from Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Ahmed Al-Jaber suggesting the opening of a broad dialogue between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states.

“Iran has entered the season of presidential election campaign with concerns about possible social tension” says Mehdi Rajabi, a researcher in Tehran. “President Rouhani’s opponents are preparing to either prevent him from standing for re-election or, if he does stand, to defeat him next spring.”

Rouhani has built his presidency on the nuclear deal with the Obama administration which he has labelled “the greatest diplomatic victory in Islamic history” and as a prelude to eventual normalization with the United States.

However, Donald Trump’s election as president has shaken that strategy, undermining Rouhani’s claim of success in foreign policy.

“With hopes of normalization with the US postponed, if not quashed, and the Iranian economy in deep crisis, Rouhani needs another foreign policy success,” says analyst Nasser Zamani. “Any sign of normalization with Saudi Arabia would be popular with Iranian voters and consequently helpful to Rouhani.”

However, electoral calculations may not be the only reason for the less hostile tone that Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif have recently adopted towards Saudi Arabia.

Some analysts believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin has played a significant part in persuading Tehran to re-think its confrontation with Saudi Arabia and his Gulf allies.

Putin ignores Rouhani and his Cabinet but has built strong direct links with the Iranian “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei who has the last word on all major issues in the Islamic Republic.

According to oil analysts, Putin’s intervention was decisive in clinching an informal accord between OPEC and non-OPEC oil exporters to reduce protection in the hope of stabilizing crude prices. Implementing that deal required close cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

However, the oil deal wasn’t the sole sign of easing tensions between the two OPEC giants.

Last year, Iran made a positive gesture by trying a group of militants charged with having attacked and ransacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.

The trial showed that the militants had acted with at least tacit approval of the Iranian security agencies which meant that the real commanders of the raid were not prosecuted.

Nevertheless, this was the first time that attacking a foreign embassy was being designated as a crime and publicly condemned in a trial.

Another sign of easing tension came with the power-sharing deal in Lebanon under which ex-General Michel Aoun, the Iranian candidate, was named President while Saad Hariri, backed by the GCC nation, returned as Prime Minister.

Yet another sign came last month when Tehran dropped all the 16 conditions it had set for the return of Iranian pilgrims to Hajj rites this year.

To hammer in what may be Iran’s new posture, Khamenei hid a major message in one of his vitriolic harangue about Bahrain. “We have no intention of intervening in Bahrain,” he said, shocking his own Friday Prayer leaders who had been calling for “urgent action” there.

In recent weeks, officials from both Iran and Saudi Arabia have adopted a softer tone on each other, mostly by paying tribute to the religious and cultural ties of the two nations.

Iran and the GCC, led by Saudi Arabia, are in indirect conflict in a number of places in the region, notably Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.

In Iraq, the continued presence of US forces, likely to expand under President Trump, represents a major hurdle to Iran’s hegemonic ambitions. More importantly, perhaps, even Iraqi Shi’ites are not keen on seeing their country becoming a satellite of Iran.

Thus, chances of Iran acquiring durable influence in Iraq remain dicey, to say the least.

In Syria, Iran is still heavily involved and exerts great influence on what is left of the Ba’athist regime. Nevertheless, the Syrian dossier is increasingly controlled by Russia, with Iran assigned the status of second fiddle at best.

With Iraq and Syria acquiring dimensions beyond the Iran-GCC rivalry, only Bahrain and Yemen are left as the hotspots of that contest.

“Narrowing down the larger conflict to the issues of Bahrain and Yemen might pave the way for a useful dialogue,” says Zamani.

It is possible that the Kuwaiti Emirs’ “confidential message” dealt with just that possibility.

Tehran’s involvement in Bahrain is largely confined to propaganda, logistics and financial support for rebel groups. Contact between Iranian security and Bahraini opposition is often held outside Iran, including in London and Beirut. Iran could easily curtail those contacts as a means of easing tension with the GCC, without abandoning its claim of support for Shi’ites in Bahrain.

Iran’s involvement in Yemen is more complicated and a greater source of concern for Saudi Arabia and its allies. The Houthi militia receives the bulk of its weapons and financial resources from Iran while Iranian military experts have played a key role in designing tactical moves by the movement’s fighting units.

However, Tehran is beginning to see the Yemen adventure as an unwinnable gamble. This is, perhaps, why the visit of a Houthi delegation to Tehran, scheduled for this month has been postponed sine die, according to Tehran sources.

Tehran is also worried about the possibility that at least of the Houthis may decide to make a separate deal with Riyadh in exchange for securing a share of power, leaving Iran as the gooseberry in a sinister charade.

Another factor may be forcing Tehran strategists to review their Yemen policy. The British government is deeply engaged in efforts to end the Yemen conflict as quickly as possible. At the same time, Tehran is keen to strengthening ties with London to ensure the continuation of the nuclear deal while keeping a channel of communication open with Washington via the British government.

The question many analysts now ask is whether better relations between Iran and the GCC are possible.

However, that may be the wrong question. Relations with Iran can never get better for as long as Iran has not solved the problems it has with itself.

So, the real question, as always, is whether it is possible to prevent relations with Iran from getting worse?

With relations between Iran and the kingdom seeming to have entered a transition phase, the answer to that question is: yes.