Avoiding a Confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran
29 October 2015
By Abdulrahman Al-Rashed
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have not been this high since the end
of the Iran–Iraq War 27 years ago. For those acquainted with the situation,
it is not difficult to understand the reasons for Saudi concerns over Iran.
Iran has expanded to the extent where it now has a military presence in Saudi
Arabia's immediate environs: to the north in Iraq, and in Saudi Arabia's
southern neighbor Yemen, while its affiliates are active as opposition groups
in Bahrain to the east. Iran is also present in Syria where it is directly
managing the conflict there on behalf of the Assad regime. Iran is investing
plenty of its manpower and funds in a project which seemingly aims to lay
siege to the Gulf countries.
If it hadn't been for this tension, the Iranian leadership, including its
most high-ranking officials—Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and
President Hassan Rouhani—would not have politicized the recent tragic Hajj
stampede. They must know that such incidents are possible during the
pilgrimage, which draws in around 2.5 million people. Iran's politicizing of
this tragedy aims to incite Iranians against Saudi Arabia and justify
Tehran's foreign escapades.
Iran's other protest against Saudi Arabia concerns what it calls ''the Saudi
war'' in Yemen. Iran objects to this intervention despite the approval it has
gained from all the UN Security Council's members approved and dozens of
Islamic countries. Iran has realized that its investment in supporting the
Houthi rebels—who are a small group—is now evaporating into thin air after
the rebels were close to seizing power in Yemen following their coup and
capture of the legitimate Yemeni president. ''Saudi intervention'' blocked
the path of Iranian military supplies destined for the Houthis by sea and by
air as it shut down the Al-Hudaydah port, shelled the runway of Sana'a
Airport, and sought the help of the US Navy to impose naval inspections on
supplies from Iran by sea.
There is also an indirect confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran in
Syria as forces from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are directly
leading militias from Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan to fight in Syria on
behalf of the Assad regime. This has led to the worst tragedy in the history
of the region; more than a quarter of a million people have been killed and
12 million displaced.
Meanwhile, Iraq is about to turn into a third frontier in this Saudi–Iranian
nexus. This is extremely dangerous considering how obvious and brazen Iranian
domination over the Baghdad government has become and the presence of Iranian
forces in several provinces in Iraq.
The Iranian government's increased appetite to expand its activities in the
Middle East contradicts US statements that Tehran's recent nuclear deal with
world powers will turn Iran into a country preoccupied only with its domestic
affairs—thereby giving up its foreign adventures and seeking to cooperate for
the sake of economic openness in order to improve the quality of services it
offers its citizens. What is happening now is the complete opposite of that.
Escalating tensions in Saudi Arabia's relations with Iran are a warning sign
that the situation in the region will get markedly worse unless both
countries work to put these relations in a context governed by standard
The nuclear agreement has led to increased concerns from Arab countries, as
it has ended economic and military sanctions that were imposed against
Tehran. This has intensified disputes between Arab countries and Iran and has
also worsened the bickering that exists in the media and in diplomat circles.
The surge in tension calls for improving means of communication—not the
opposite. The reasons and motives behind this tension must be understood,
otherwise we can expect regional disputes in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and
other countries to continue. We will also get the added problem of sectarian
tensions—though in any case it will not be easy to banish away religious
strife after the political disputes end. Still, both sides can no longer
afford to allow these tensions to spiral out of control.
Al Rashed is the general manager of Al -Arabiya television. He is also the
former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al- Awsat, and the leading Arabic weekly
magazine, Al Majalla. He is also a senior Columnist in the daily newspapers
of Al Madina and Al Bilad. He is a US post-graduate degree in mass
communications. He has been a guest on many TV current affairs programs. He
is currently based in Dubai.