All indicators point that ongoing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have peaked off. Both are poised to continue struggling with the debris of over-reaction, however. In the first place Iran over-reacted to execution of a Saudi national by the Saudi government; in the second place Saudi Arabia overreacted to an attack over its embassy in Tehran that had been condemned by the Iranian government; and in the third place, some other countries chose to rupture their diplomatic ties with Iran unnecessarily. All these will now go through the pangs of retracing their rash steps.
Fault lines continue to haunt the two sides and relationship is likely to remain on tenterhooks, ready for fresh estrangement bouts on trivialities. At strategic level, however, good sense prevails, there is firm understanding that if conflict draws beyond certain redlines, only third parties would take the benefit, to the peril of both.
UN SG Ban Ki-moon described the Saudi move [breaking of diplomatic ties] as ‘deeply worrying’. China said it was ‘highly concerned’. The US and Germany called for restraint, while Russia offered to mediate. Pakistan voiced concern, “dark forces of terrorism and extremism could take advantage of any disunity in the Muslim world”. It also deplored the storming of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran as ‘unfortunate and deeply regrettable’. “It is the responsibility of states to provide full safety and security to all diplomatic missions and their personnel,” the foreign office said in a statement.
Since the Iranian revolution, both Saudi Arabia and Iran have locked themselves in a race for influence within the Islamic world, involving: alliance building, sectarian focused influence paddling, social well-being projects, disaster mitigation programmes, conflict resolution strategies, religious education etc. Resulting into both desired and undesired fallouts.
Most negative impact has been sectarian polarization amongst Muslim societies, hence weakening the Muslim State structures, be they Shiite or Sunni majority countries. Such state-society polarizations were hardly known before mid-1970s when Islam was taken as a single identity and a unifying rallying force—say against Israel.
Iran has intensely focused on sectarian element and has mobilized significant non-government influence in contiguous Shiites belts running through the Sunni-majority countries of Asia through enabling and empowering of Shiite groups and have brought them up to the level of sustainable and resilient political pressure groups. Contours of this influence enhancement are clearly discernable in the Middle Eastern Shiite population belt. Likewise, since Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979, Saudis have also invested heavily amongst their school of thought through seminaries spread in the Sunni areas of influence. Moreover, they focused on alliance building amongst the Gulf monarchies with anti-Iran bias.
The difference in the strategies has been that while Iran focused on Shiite communities which were not already politically empowered, Saudis were investing in the societies and governments where Sunni regimes were already in power. Now while those communities which received Iranian support are bursting at seams for political empowerment, at the cost of Sunni status quo political order, while those supported by Saudi Arabia—sub sects of Sunni school of thought— are either struggling to retain the Sunni status quo political order or claim their pound of flesh out of the same pie—hence becoming pariah like al-Qaida or Daish. Some Sunni regimes have already lost power to Shiite dispensations—say Iraq—others managed to survive from the brink—say Bahrain.
Frustrated by the Iran-P+5 nuclear deal brightening the prospects of mainstreaming of Iran and likely reversion of America to early 1970s two pillars (Saudi Arabia and Iran) Gulf policy, Saudis may be mixing up chaff with grain. They need to reconcile that now for quite some time worst is behind Iran. For over a quarter of century, Saudis were in a diplomatic slumber while American and Iranian diplomats were busy hobnobbing in low profile meeting in un-important capitals around the world charting the parameters of neo-Gulf and neo-Middle East that would evolve through 2050.
The new mapping offers respectable place for Saudi Arabia. Saudi grace could be salvaged by pragmatically adjusting to this reality and avoiding knee jerks. The way contemporary wars and conflicts have shaped up indicates that no present day military might—through alliances of the willing and or the unwilling— has the capacity to initiate the conflict and bring it a predetermined happy ending of initiator’s liking. Similarly, employment of repressive tools may trigger self-destruct mechanisms through public resistance. Saudi’s need to guard against these jeopardies both singly and doubly.
Since the breakout of Arab spring, Saudi Arabia has been investing heavily to hedge against the approaching chaos which was more of socio-economic making than of sectarian hue. There has been phenomenal investment by Saudi Arabia in its social security reforms and purchase of military hardware. Both these approaches have inherent limitations in terms of protecting the regimes of the type that Saudi Arabia has. Military hardware is useful as long as it is not put to use—by setting up sustainable deterrence. And socio-economic score card is helpful as long as it is perceived as government’s voluntary effort by the recipient people.
On both these counts, Saudis may not be on a gainful track. Their misadventure in Yemen has already exposed the extent and limits of their military might, another open ended conflict has been added to the region. Likewise, gauging the vulnerability of the House of Saud, restive sub-regions within Saudi Arabia may be vying to suck in more and more royal funding on one pretext or the other’, and still remain estranged, especially on sectarian grounds.
Saudi Arabia has not been able to carry along even some GCC countries on some important issues including recent breaking off of diplomatic ties with Iran and its approach towards brotherhood. Current Saudi effort for regional leadership is also faulty as it has not been able to dispel the impression that it is not focused on anti-Iran sentiment; the 34-country counter terrorism alliance could have sold out well but again two limiting factors are blocking the way, instead of putting it, at least, notionally under OIC command, Saudis decided to head it themselves and then let the impression go around that it could be a Sunni alliance against the Shiite. No right minded Sunni strategist could out rightly support such a sectarian direction of any international counter terrorism effort. At public level, Saudi foreign minister Adel Bin Ahmed al Jubeir did a good job by wading off such perception during their visits to Pakistan on January 07. There is certainly sufficient strategic space a Muslim counter terrorism narrative and Muslim counter terrorism military effort through broad based coalition effort. Such an effort is required because it the Muslim countries that have suffered the most due to terrorism and what is being done by the international counter terrorism effort. While doing so the architects of coalition should keep in mind that the US led international effort counter terrorism effort failed because it stereotyped Muslims as terrorists. Any Muslim effort must not make a similar mistake.
Tense atmosphere between Saudi Arabia and Iran has put Pakistan in the tight corner. Strategic relevance always has a price, Pakistan cannot proclaim neutrality and walk away from the situation. Thanks to Pakistan’s nap of four decades allowing both Saudi Arabia and Iran a free hand to invest heavily and raise their militant sectarian proxies to the level that it is now these proxies whose behaviour is a major consideration while taking major policy decisions viz-a-viz Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Nevertheless, Pakistan could sell the idea being a part of upcoming alliance at home as long as it focuses on international counter terrorism effort, terrorism is discreetly defined and its membership is expanded to include all OIC members.
[A variant of this article was carried by the Nation on January 11, 2016].
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.