27 May 2019
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani waves during a news conference in Tehran on Sunday. Reuters/
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani waves during a news conference in Tehran on Sunday. Reuters/

How new era for Iran could come at a cost for Saudi Arabia

Iran begins a new era as a regional power from a pariah state after the lifting western sanctions, highlighting its new relationship with the United States that could come at the cost of Saudi Arabia, Washington’s chief Arab ally, Reuters said.

Enemies and allies alike must adjust to Iran becoming an uninhibited power broker in the Middle East after its nuclear deal with world powers and Saturday’s lifting of sanctions that bring it to the top table of international politics, according to the news agency.

The swift release last week of US Navy sailors after they drifted into Iranian waters marked the new era in relations following decades of hostility with the West.

After the 1979 revolution that brought Shi’ite Muslim clerics to power, Iran would typically use hostages to extract concessions from its western adversaries.

Early on, it held 52 hostages taken from the US embassy in Tehran for 444 days.

That incident ranked alongside Iranian-backed suicide bombings against Western embassies and troops in Lebanon, the hijacking of planes and the kidnapping of Western hostages in the country.

The hiccup over the American sailors was easily contained by the new rapprochement and “summarizes the emergence of a new relationship between Washington and Tehran”, said Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics.

Washington remains far from enamored of the mullahs ruling in Tehran, and is formally committed to Iran’s arch-rival, Saudi Arabia.

But Iran’s attractions are both political and economic: a country that is “a potential regional superpower, and an emerging market with huge potential along similar lines to Turkey”, said Gerges.

“There is a new relationship based on a new understanding of Iran’s pivotal role in the region — that Iran is here to stay,” he said.

So, for Washington, Iran would no longer be a spoiler state, but one that could play a positive role in stabilizing the region and “help put out the fires”.

Saudi Arabia, however, remains implacably at loggerheads with Iran.

Its rigid Wahhabi Sunni Muslim clerical leaders treat Shi’ites as heretics, not far short of how Islamic State jihadis regard Shi’ites as idolaters to be exterminated.

The Saudis have been badly rattled by Iran’s success in forging a Shi’ite axis stretching from Iraq through Syria to Lebanon, where Tehran’s paramilitary ally Hezbollah is also the strongest political force.

Riyadh says Iran is also behind unrest in neighboring Bahrain, which has a Shi’ite majority, as well as the insurgency of Shi’ite Houthis in Yemen, where the Saudis launched an air war last year.

It also believes Tehran is stirring up Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which contains nearly all the kingdom’s oil and most of its marginalized Shi’ite minority.

The execution this month of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a dissident Saudi Shi’ite cleric, has further poisoned relations with Iran.

Yet, for the US and its European allies, getting Iran on-side is likely to be vital to their interests.

In particular, Tehran could be crucial in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The same goes for the search for ending the civil war in Syria.

There Iran kept President Bashar al-Assad in power as his sole foreign ally offering battlefield help until Russia arrived with its air force last autumn.

While Iranian confidence grows, Riyadh appears defensive — and unpredictable since last year’s succession of the elderly King Salman, who has vested vast power in his young son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi watchers say.

“There is a widespread perception that Saudi Arabia is pursuing chaotic, counter-productive policies,” said Gerges, and that Wahhabism lies behind the rise of al Qaeda and Islamic State, with the Saudi leadership lacking experience and wisdom.

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