BEIRUT, Lebanon — The fevered struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional dominance has for years aggravated nearly every conflict across the Middle East as the two nations armed, funded and encouraged each other’s adversaries.
So it has come as a surprise to many here that even with the region still in tumult, there have been signs that both powers are looking to temper their destructive rivalry.
But as officials in Riyadh and Tehran give hints of détente, the reality, experts say, is that the two battle-scarred adversaries are more likely circling as they adjust to shifting regional dynamics. For the moment, Iran has the upper hand, having successfully staked its position on supporting Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war and having opened talks with Washington over its nuclear program.
“Iran is in a stronger position than Saudi right now,” said an adviser to the Saudi government, speaking anonymously in order to be more candid. “They have more cards.”
Iran’s current – albeit tenuous – leg up has implications in key areas where it has sparred with the Saudi kingdom, and the United States. It reinforces Iran’s position in Iraq, bolsters its allies that violently reject Israel and gives momentum to forces opposed to American influence in the region.
The shift also has emboldened Iran to seek stronger economic ties with other Persian Gulf states that Saudi Arabia would like to have firmly in its own camp.
This leaves Saudi leaders trying to figure out how they have been outmaneuvered. Saudi Arabia also feels imperiled by what it sees as its allies in the Obama administration pulling back from the Middle East, while the Syrian rebels it has backed fracture and lose ground.
The kingdom has gained outsize leverage with Egypt after propping up its treasury with billions of dollars, but Egypt’s regional influence and agenda have narrowed as it focuses on stabilizing its domestic situation. So with Iran continuing to exert its influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen, the Saudis issued an invitation for Iran’s foreign minister to visit, though no date has been set.
Yet a willingness to talk does not necessarily signal a willingness to close the yawning gaps that remain between the two sides, according to analysts and regional officials.
“When you look at the nature of the conflicts they are fighting, they are not raging because of a lack of dialogue between Tehran and Riyadh,” said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There are serious geopolitical, ethnic, sectarian and ideological differences at play.”
Iran has trumpeted its views on the most immediate of those differences – whom to blame for the civil war in Syria. During a visit to Iran this week by the emir of Kuwait (another signal of outreach from the gulf), Iran’s supreme leader implicitly accused Saudi Arabia of backing takfiris, or extremists who consider those who do not follow their interpretation of Islam to be infidels.
“By offering assistance to the takfiri groups, some regional countries are now supporting their killings and crimes in Syria and in a number of other countries,” said the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to the Tasnim news agency.
In key ways, the similarities between Saudi Arabia and Iran sharpen their differences. Both are regional powers with oil wealth and Islamic governments that long to outshine the other as the lodestar of the Muslim world.
The conflict of those ambitions pits the Sunni-majority kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a long-term American ally, against Shiite Iran, which has sought to rid the Middle East of Western influence since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Since his election last year, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran has sought to decrease Iran’s isolation and improve its economy by joining the nuclear talks and sending his foreign minister to strengthen ties with other gulf states.
Some of those countries, too, see benefits in building ties with Iran.
One of the Kuwaiti emir’s goals in visiting Tehran was to seek a deal to import Iranian natural gas, Kuwait’s oil minister told the country’s state news service, KUNA.
In January, the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, told the BBC that sanctions on Iran should be eased, adding that “everybody will benefit.”
Saudi Arabia has responded to Iranian overtures with extreme distrust, despite the announcement last month by the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, that he had invited his Iranian counterpart to Riyadh.
“Iran is a neighbor,” Prince Saud said. “We have relations with them and we will negotiate with them.”
Saudi and Iranian diplomats have been struggling to agree on an agenda for the visit, with Saudi Arabia insisting that Iran commit to concessions so that the visit is not a public relations victory for Tehran, said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center who is close to Saudi officials.
“The Saudi agenda is clear: ‘Put your agenda on the table and tell us what you are going to change.’ ” Mr. Alani said. “But coming without anything to offer, it is not on.”
Saudi officials also doubt that Mr. Rouhani and the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have much control over Iran’s regional involvement, saying such matters are in the hands of Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force.
Saudi leaders, who have long considered their alliance with Washington crucial to national security, have watched warily as President Obama has prioritized the Iranian nuclear deal over other regional issues. They also feel betrayed because Mr. Obama has not given greater backing to Syria’s rebels and did not enforce his “red line” after Washington accused Mr. Assad of carrying out a chemical attack killed hundreds of Syrians last year.
Saudi Arabia has sought to adjust by promoting security cooperation in the gulf. And in April, it dropped its traditional discretion about military matters by televising its largest-ever maneuvers and showing off powerful ballistic missiles.
“We are seeing the Saudis realize that they can’t expect the Americans to be there every minute for them and that they have to take more responsibility for their own security and influence in the region,” said Robert W. Jordan, a former American ambassador to the kingdom.
But in addition to doubting Iran’s intentions, the Saudis are wary of offering any concessions of their own in a conflict both sides often see as a zero-sum game.
Saudi officials say they feel they have largely “lost” Iraq, where the Shiite prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, has pursued policies that have enraged the Sunni minority.
That gives them all the more reason not to give up on the rebels in Syria, where three-quarters of the population is Sunni. But Saudi Arabia’s main hope is that the strain of Iran’s extensive support for Mr. Assad will cause it to seek a deal – a prospect analysts dismiss as unlikely as long as Mr. Assad’s forces are advancing.
“Two years ago, the conventional wisdom was that Assad’s collapse was imminent, and now no one is talking about Assad leaving,” said Mr. Sadjadpour, of the Carnegie Endowment. “So why on earth would they feel the need to drop him now, given all they have invested?”
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(via NY Times)