The war of words between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not spiralling out of control.
It is a measured fencing contest to evoke sympathies in the Arab world and erode each other’s support in the international community. The Sunni-ruled Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been eyeing the Iran nuclear deal with suspicion and heavy criticism. And now that the United Nations are virtually weeks away from lifting the routine sanctions against the Islamic Republic, Saudi leadership is doing what it can to bring out the “true colours” of its long time Shia rival.
The execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on New Year’s morning was a first stepping stone of a polarisation-policy. Provocation was the goal, and provocation was achieved: the consequential attack on the Saudi embassy in Iran by Iranian extremists paints Iran as an integrally dangerous country. It placed the Iranian government in a precarious position – endorse the storm on an embassy and waive all international support or condemn the attacks as unjustified and risk losing support amongst the own people. The Saudi response, to sever diplomatic channels immediately, sent a clear message: you are with us or you are with them. And the economically leading Arab country can offer its allies far better deals than Iran at the moment. Hungry for and reliant on Saudi investment, Iran’s long-time ally Sudan quickly sided with the Kingdom.
The biggest gift for the Saudi leadership came shortly afterwards. Iranian proxies (as Saudi Arabian media channels were quick to determine) had launched a ballistic attack targeting Saudi government buildings in Sudan. Within the next hours, government-affiliated channels dropped the verbal bomb “state terrorism”. Mission accomplished, effect achieved.
As Barrack Obama, likely the most prominent perpetrator and supporter of the Iran nuclear deal is taking more and more heat at home, the Saudi Arabian pole position amongst Muslim countries is continually fortified. Firstly, many of the Kingdom’s Sunni allies had to follow suit in condemning Iran’s “meddling in Arab affairs” (Saudi foreign ministry). They have to line up on the Sunni side of the conflict. This was a resounding display of trans-national influence – possibly setting a standard for the future. Secondly, the reaffirmed rift between Sunni countries and the less populous Shia minority is being utilised as a reason to deprive any Shia-led states from constructively claiming the crown of Muslim leadership in the Middle East.
The primary reason for the importance of power-politics right now is, as previously mentioned, the nuclear deal in Iran and the consequential lifting of sanctions against energy and economy. This will leave Teheran open to new and revised energy plans – such as a close collaboration with Pakistan. Respective talks have long been initiated. The proposed pipeline would relieve Pakistan from its current energy woes and grant a whole new level of economic independence. But it is not only the export business that is calling to Iran. The People’s Republic of China and India are looking to strengthen their collaboration with the Islamic Republic, eyeing it as a transit country for imports. The prospect of economic growth on a liberated market amplifies the foreign enthusiasm for investment.
It is logical that Saudi Arabia must act now, attempt to avert as much of Iran’s comeback as possible. The sole leadership in terms of energy and trade is about to be taken from the Kingdom.
“Help” however may come from an unlikely ally. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been very vocal in his criticism of Obama’s latest foreign policy reform. Most notably, the ex-Mossad agent brought forward a rhetoric masterpiece in the United Nations General Assembly, tearing through threats from the Iranian leadership (which had asserted that there would be no Israel 20 years from now) before giving the distinguished delegates 45 full seconds to reflect on their actions in the most intense rhetoric pause of UN history. If Israel can rally its’ western allies, King Salman may receive unexpected aid and see his personal looming Damocles sword of foreign policy safely removed.
Meanwhile, Iran has taken to promote Ghandi-worthy pacifism as a display of protest. When two boats of the US military lost their way – ending up in Iranian territory – Teheran promptly notified the US embassy and assured the well-being of all soldiers involved. The equipment-malfunction explanation was not questioned and the marines have already returned to their posts. Despite the questionable reaction from several Republican US-presidential candidates (who called for “punishments” against Iran for seizing the soldiers in the first place), letting go of soldiers who violated domestic territory restrictions is a very rare display of cooperation.
Self-evidently, the minds behind this game of chess are awake and wary, likely already anticipating the next shadowy move. Let us hope that Mohammed bin Salman, deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia meant what he said in one of his rare recent interviews:
He was asked, “Do you consider Iran to be your biggest enemy?”
He answered, “We hope not.”