After quietly encouraging the George W. Bush administration to invade Iraq, overthrow the Baath Party regime and thereby open the door to a Shia dominated government in Baghdad, Tehran has steadfastly supported the Alawite-dominated regime of Bashar Al Assad in Syria against its mainly Sunni radical foes, funded and backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the major western powers. Comforted by Iran’s steadfast resolve to prevent a Takfiri insurrection from taking over, Russia stepped in and helped defeat the rebels and foreign mercenaries of ISIS and other groups, bringing the civil war almost to an end. In the meantime, Iran established a clandestine commercial and banking network with her traditional rival Turkey (and also with the UAE) in order to bypass western sanctions, thereby helping Ankara turn away from the western alliance.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, increasingly estranged from the US-European powers by his Neo-Ottoman Islamic agenda and his unpredictable policies needs Iran to maintain a peaceful eastern border, as a consumer market for Turkish goods and as a source of energy. The two large neighbours have revived, to their mutual benefit and against the West, the CENTO alliance formerly forged by the United States at the end of World War II. Pakistan is also being drawn back into what was originally known as the Baghdad Pact. Turkey and Iran are brought together by their opposition to any Kurdish independent statehood and that has led them to guarantee jointly, together with Russia, the territorial integrity of the Iraqi and Syrian states.
Tehran and Ankara have linked arms to form a non-Arab Muslim alliance of convenience into which they have drawn the opponents of Saudi Arabia, including Iraq and Qatar. In the east, Iran seeks to influence the settlement of the thorny Afghan situation in a concertation with Pakistan, Russia and China, the other major neighbours of the troubled landlocked state. The government of President Hassan Rouhani has opened a dialogue with Islamabad regarding the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), sponsored by Beijing as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, while continuing to work with India on the long-planned North-South Corridor in the teeth of US opposition. Indeed, the two projects are not really in competition as the NSC is to run across both the eastern and western Caspian shores into Russia to connect with Western Europe, whereas the CPEC would be an artery between the Chinese Far West in Xinjiang and the Arabian Sea/Persian Gulf. Iran is strategically situated at the Persian Gulf intersection of both those highways and can, given the proximity of Gwadar to the Iranian border, easily threaten the future CPEC lifeline in the unstable Balochistan province in which it has some locally recruited assets, should it be in her interest to do so.
Syria is heavily dependent on Tehran in the effort to crush the remaining jihadis and to prevent Turkey from resuming attempts to undermine the Assad government. Lebanon, officially neutral, supports Iran’s interests through the Hezbollah, easily the most disciplined and best-equipped non-state armed force in the region, if not in the world. In Yemen, the Houthis and their allies, quietly assisted by Iranian proxies, with the tacit agreement of neighbouring Oman, have effectively checkmated the Saudi-led coalition, closing the metaphorical circle of fire around the embattled Wahhabi Arab kingdom. Likewise Israel, surrounded by the Palestinian territories and Lebanon and by a renascent Syria hosting various Iranian bases and protected by Russian Air assets feels hemmed in.
Despite Donald Trump’s vocal support for the Jewish state and for Saudi Arabia and her allies in the GCC, there is uncertainty about the US Administration’s commitment in the region. While publicly rebuking Iran and refusing to certify Tehran’s compliance with the six-party nuclear treaty in order to please the pro-Israeli establishment, the American President is trying to step out of that sticky wicket, passing the buck on to Congress. He has no serious intention to go to war with Iran, knowing that it is not a realistic prospect in view of the balance of forces in the wider area and in the world. Apart from her own military resources, far from negligible when one considers the country’s challenging topography, vast territory, large and martial population and largely autonomous industrial infrastructure, Iran extended operational facilities to nuclear-capable Russian aircraft during the recent civil war in Syria and is likely to do so again in case of a foreign attack. Tehran also feels confident of Chinese diplomatic and financial support connected to its status as an observer in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
On the other side of the fence, Saudi Arabia is in disarray, having been pushed back or stymied in her recent initiatives to build an anti-Iranian front, while her financial reserves have been rapidly depleted as a result of rampant corruption, spendthrift policies, reduced oil prices and astronomically expensive foreign military adventures which included, at least in the beginning support to the so-called ISIS or Daesh paramilitaries, given the task of overthrowing the non-Sunni, Iran-friendly Iraqi and Syrian regimes. The Kingdom continues to be bled dry by huge weapons purchases mandated by its western partners as a sort of “protection money”.
Yet, at a time when Saudi Arabia needs all of her resources, the ruling oligarchy led by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has had to pledge most of them to Donald Trump’s infrastructure development plans in the US, as a quid pro quo for America’s promises of support. To replenish the treasury, Prince Mohammad has embarked on a policy of high taxation, selling off state assets and confiscating “embezzled” funds. That has raised red flags among global investors and a lot of capital is moving out of Gulf countries in reaction to those unprecedented measures.
In the regional game, Iran is the cat and the Saudis have become the mice. All Tehran has to do is to hold its ground and watch its old enemy squirm and falter without getting dragged into a direct conflict in reaction to Riyadh’s peevish provocations.
Saudi Arabia’s courting of Israel is causing dismay among the Arab masses, and both Turkey and Iran have voiced their contempt for what they qualify as a craven sell-out. Simultaneously, the Saudi regime is being accused in international fora of committing war crimes in Yemen and Prince Muhammad, the chief sponsor of that brutal intrusion into another state’s internecine conflict, may have to answer charges of crimes against humanity, hardly a badge of honour for a statesman who wishes to become the official custodian of the two holy mosques of Islam.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, on the other hand, is becoming secure in view of her economic relationship with the SCO/EEC/BRICS bloc, and she has new leverage with European states eager to do business. Even the Trump administration is making quiet overtures to mend fences. Iran is seen as a relatively stable, politically pluralistic and institutionally solid country in a fragmented and conflicted region, in which most other states depend on strong men for survival.
Towards Saudi Arabia, Iran is keeping at least two options open: One, let the kingdom muddle along and downsize its foreign footprint after admitting defeat in Yemen as in Syria where Riyadh is still making feckless attempts to promote a disparate and demoralised opposition made up of some 140 squabbling gangs.
As Iranian oil and gas production increases, it will counter the Saudi effort to raise rates which is, in the medium term, the only chance of the Kingdom to repair its finances and maintain a weakened monarchy. Whoever rules Saudi Arabia will eventually have to seek an accommodation with Iran, tacitly acknowledging Tehran’s pre-eminence and cutting back financial support to Bahrain, Egypt and other client-states which will then move away from Riyadh.
The second option is more drastic. If Prince Mohammad continues his “scorched earth” policy towards Iran, the Islamic Republic may boost the war in Yemen and activate Shia cells in the northern provinces of the Kingdom to trigger an internal conflict, which could partly interrupt oil exports (the pipeline to Bahrain was briefly cut off a few weeks ago and more extensive sabotage operations are possible). If greater turmoil erupts, the present Crown Prince is likely to face a massive challenge from within the ruling circles and may be removed. Family infighting might turn into civil strife, resulting in revolts in some critical regions such as the Hejaz under the leadership of the local elites, which have suffered the rival Nedj/Saudi takeover as a usurpation and do not historically subscribe to the Wahhabi version of the faith. The Hashemite dynasty headed by King Abdullah of Jordan, a staunch ally of the Americans and British who enjoys equable relations with Israel, retains an ancestral bond with her cradle in the Hejaz and could well step into the fray to reclaim its former primacy.
Splitting apart the Al Saud family holding , even if it sounds like a “nuclear option” might not be welcome only in Tehran if it increases opportunities for other regional and distant powers. It would be a return to the not-so-ancient political past of the Arabian peninsula.