Saudi Arabia and 3 non-Arab musketeers
My good friend Graham Fuller, formerly top CIA hand and a superb Middle East expert, sent to me a blog he posted lately on the changing geopolitics of that region. Graham is an original thinker and presents an unusual hypothesis that a “Northern Tier” of three non-Arab states who played a pivotal role in the US’ cold-war era strategies against the former Soviet Union – Turkey, Iran and Pakistan – are once again appearing on the geopolitical landscape as a “significantly more progressive, moderate and forward-looking coalition than the present Saudi-driven ‘Sunni coalition’ that is divisive, ideological, destructive and sectarian.” Graham’s writings are densely packed with ideas and indeed it is futile to try to sum up his narrative. You must read it, here, yourself.
To my mind, there are many sub-plots involved and some of them could be even more important than the main narrative. Take, for instance, the recent Russian-Iranian bonhomie. Their estrangement over Moscow’s earlier refusal to fulfill the S-300 missile deal doesn’t need a recap. Russia today claims that the UN sanctions against Iran do not cover a defensive system such as S-300. Wait a minute. Moscow had advanced precisely the contrarian argument four years ago to freeze the deal.
Unsurprisingly, Tehran is not exactly jumping with joy over Russia’s rethink now. Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif gave a measured reaction, complimenting Moscow for returning to the “right path.” Tehran claims that the S-300 is not really such a big deal, either. Meanwhile, both Tehran and Washington are sequestering their bilateral engagement from the S-300 fallouts.
The point is, as Zarif recently noted in an op-Ed in the New York Times, Tehran hopes to expand the engagement with the US into a seamless vista of regional cooperation. Washington also sees merit in consulting Tehran behind the scenes before getting Saudi Arabia to suspend its attacks on Yemen.
Now, Russia would know Iran is not any different from other partners that it deals with such as India, Uzbekistan, Turkey or Vietnam, who pursue “multi-vector” foreign policies, cherish their strategic autonomy and are smart enough to cherry pick from friendships on the platter.
Moscow can’t complain. Moscow too supported the recent UN Security Council resolution on Yemen putting an embargo on the Houthis – although pundits say Russia is supportive of the Shi’ites in the Middle East.
Indeed, Moscow’s vote in the Security Council didn’t escape the attention of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who phoned President Vladimir Putin to express gratitude. Salman probed how pragmatic Russia would be at a time when the US and Iran are openly consorting.
The Kremlin since disclosed that Putin invited Salman to visit Russia and the two leaders “reaffirmed their readiness to deepen coordination between the two countries on the regional and international agendas. They expressed their mutual desire to continue building up mutually advantageous bilateral cooperation in a wide range of areas.”
So, what do we get here at the end of the day? Tehran consulted Moscow on the Yemen issue and went on to claim suo moto that the two countries are on the same page; while Moscow did not contradicted the Iranian claim but nonetheless voted in the UNSC in favor of Saudi Arabia, which is promptly appreciated by Riyadh and might lead to a royal visit to Moscow where both cold exchange notes on the inconstancy of American policies; meanwhile, Washington consults Tehran and Riyadh and works out the ceasefire in Yemen. Again, Moscow will supply S-300 of certain capability that does not substantially make a difference to Tehran and something Washington and Tel Aviv can learn to live with, while on the oil swap deal with Iran it is still holding fire.
All in all, what we see here is that these players are maneuvering, in terms of the specific nature of each one’s circumstances, options available, and keeping respective priorities in view. (Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is heading for Riyadh on yet another visit today.) Obviously, the lifting of sanctions against Iran and the country’s expected surge is on everyone’s mind.
Graham is right: as time passes, there are going to be increasingly fewer and fewer takers for the Saudi “boast of a bold and sweeping coalition to block a much-hyped threat of Iranian / Shi’ite imperialism” – not only in the Muslim Middle East but even in the larger Muslim world. Earlier this week, Indonesian foreign ministry made a demarche with the Saudi ambassador in Jakarta over the wanton air strikes on Yemen.
Therefore, would the Northern Tier evolve into an “informal bloc” — now or ever? I doubt it, as Turkey, Iran and Pakistan are not pursuing the same objectives and do not have a convergence of interests that could bring them together under a canopy.
Even if they do, for argument’s sake, would Saudi Arabia listen to these non-Arabs? Never. The bottom line is that the House of Saud would unravel if Saudi Arabia gave up the petard of the “Shi’ite arc” threatening Sunni Arabs. Because, the Iranian system, which was built on the ashes of an entrenched monarchy and is,with warts and all, representative in character, is antithetical to the Saudi regime.
Truly, therefore, the US is stuck with the Saudi-led “counter-revolutionary Arab coalition” till death do them part. These are times when one wishes Obama got an exceptional third term as president, like FDR, in order to carry through this New Deal in the US’ Middle East policies. It is hard to see Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush following up. Salman knows it, too.
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