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Saudi-Iranian rivalry: The way forward!

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News Analysis |

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said, “Iran is ready to discuss regional security issues with its Gulf Arab neighbors as long as foreign powers are kept out of any potential talks”, in a speech broadcasted on a state television on February 28, 2018.

He asserted, “We don’t need foreigners to guarantee the security of our region. We are, have been and always will be good neighbors, addressing Gulf Arab countries including Iran’s regional rivalry with Saudi Arabia.” Rouhani gave these remarks speaking to the southern port city of Bandar Abbas directing the Gulf which is a flashpoint of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

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Six years after the Arab Spring in 2010, the security situation of the Middle East (ME) has been deteriorated since the beginning of civil wars in Syria and Yemen. Two major regional powers of ME; Saudi Arabia and Iran had disengaged their diplomatic relations in 2016.

In Syria, Iran (a Shia-dominated country) has been supporting Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad against Sunni rebels backed by Saudi Arabia. While in Yemen, a Saudi-led coalition forces bombing Houthi, Shia rebels backed by Iran.

Western powers and the Gulf countries perceive profoundly that Iran is destabilizing the whole ME. Therefore, Iran was called for talks with its neighbors without any external intervention.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have religio-political animosities and trust deficits. Each country wants to control the whole Middle Eastern region. Therefore, the rhetoric of negotiations between Iran and the Arab countries may be ineffective.

Iran aspires to protect the interest of Shiites which is a minority in the Middle East. Unlike Syria, Iraq or Lebanon – Yemen does not represent Iran’s higher interest, though there is some worth in having a foothold in Yemen because it commands the Bab al-Mandeb Straits and borders Saudi Arabia.

Rouhani’s willingness to negotiate talks with its other Arab states came a day after the United States and 3 European allies who condemned Iran after the United Nations found Iran had violated the arms ban on Yemen as it supplied missiles and drones to Houthi rebels.

Rouhani’s proposal to talk with other Gulf countries without any interference of western power may not be fruitful because Iran’s traditional rivalry with its regional Arab states are not confined to the crises in Yemen and Syria but also they have been pursuing their geopolitical agendas to be hegemonic powers in the region for centuries.

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Both countries; Saudi Arabia and Iran have religio-political animosities and trust deficits. Each country wants to control the whole Middle Eastern region. Therefore, the rhetoric of negotiations between Iran and the Arab countries may be ineffective unless they formulate sound confidence-building measures including collective security arrangement under the United Nations.

The involvement of western powers whether the United States or Russia cannot be ruled out because both are responsible for the current deteriorated geopolitical security situation of the region.

Apart from the military conflicts in Syria and Yemen, there are some domestic challenges to their political order, and jihad, represented by Al Qaeda and the “Islamic State” (Daesh), is today widespread across the region. At the heart of this regional turmoil is the strategic rivalry between the two regional Islamic giants, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Primarily, the two regional Islamic giants; Iran and Saudi Arabia have to settle their bilateral regional sectarian conflicts pursuing their proxy wars in the region rather involving other Gulf countries through a dialogue. The dialogue may occur on a two-step approach. First is, on a political level in which both countries may discuss the fight against terrorism, the future scenarios of Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. 

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Second is on a practical level, they should talk about concrete terms for infrastructure projects, environmental protection measures, trade issues, energy cooperation and refugee aid through mutual trust.

As civil wars have destroyed almost all infrastructure in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and other Middle Eastern states. So, both countries should prioritize a rehabilitation process of the conflicted zones of the region and must address the refugee crises.

At a global level, major powers; the United States and Russia may/should also hold talks to settle peace and stability in the ME despite supporting the opposition groups in order to avoid a catastrophe.


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