Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iran: Gulf players willing to abandon old narratives
The Iran nuclear deal is yet to cross the Rubicon of approval by the US Congress and the going got a bit tough last weekend with Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Eliot Engel, two top congressional Democrats, announcing their objection to the deal. Schumer claimed he made the decision “after deep study, careful thought, and considerable soul-searching,” while Engel is yet to lay bare his soul. But never mind; the debate in the US looks increasingly surreal.
The Middle East may have already begun implementing the Iran deal – and what matters would be that Iran lives in its region and not in the Western Hemisphere. The region is turning upside down with such impatience many established narratives, no sooner than word came from Vienna that the historic deal came through that it takes the breath away.
The ‘big picture’ is that a full-bodied strategic partnership between Russia and Saudi Arabia is in the making. This is no longer a matter of two estranged countries exchanging glances. This is a communion. The Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir is heading for Moscow on Tuesday, although he had met his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov only last week. Obviously, he wants to talk more and cannot wait, since the Saudi-backed Syrian National Coalition opposition group is also due to Moscow next week for the first time.
Al-Jubeir is set to discuss with Moscow a range of bilateral issues that may bring multi-billion dollar succor to Russia’s economy and try to jointly make efforts to heal a number of festering Middle Eastern wounds. Cynics may say the Saudis are buying off the Russians, but what the two countries are aiming at appears to be nothing less than choreographing the New Middle East.
The narrative has been that Russia is fishing in the troubled waters of the US-Saudi relationship. But it appears that the US and Russia are probably having the same agenda toward Riyadh. When Lavrov met Al-Jubeir in Doha, US Secretary of State John Kerry was present and two days later Lavrov and Kerry bumped into each other in Malaysia to exchange notes on the sidelines of the ASEAN meet.
Russia has offered to help Saudi Arabia cope with the blowback of terrorism that it faces from the extremist Islamist groups it had supported until recently. And in the process, Russia hopes that Saudi Arabia will cease to be the Saudi Arabia that we have known before – the charioteer of Wahhabist groups in as instruments of Saudi regional policies.
Now, that is an objective that the US shares with Russia but dared not articulate, given the reality that Washington also had selective use for the Saudi nexus with extremist groups in many a regional setting such as Afghanistan, Yemen or Syria.
What could be the reason why the Saudi narrative is giving way? Where things have changed radically today is that the Saudis are getting worried about the Islamic State [IS]. Three sensational attacks on Saudi mosques in quick succession by the IS suicide bombers, inflicting heavy casualties, have brought international terrorism to Riyadh’s doorstep.
There is a sense of panic in the Saudi mind that with all the King’s men and all the King’s horses, they are still going to be incapable of defending themselves from the IS juggernaut on their own steam.
Again, the narrative has been that the new leadership of King Salman and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman subscribes to a doctrine of strategic defiance of the US – which the well-known chronicler of Middle East politics Jamal Khashoggi famously labeled as the “Salman doctrine.”
Khashoggi based his thesis, expounded as recently as in April, on two core assumptions, namely, King Salman has “decided his country could no longer bear the provocative Iranian expansive policy in the region, and the American silence over it … (and) decided that if Saudi Arabia has to act alone, then it will.”
What gave credence to Khashoggi’s thesis 3 months ago was the Saudi intervention in Yemen, but, ironically, the subsequent quagmire in Yemen provided impetus to Riyadh to do some “out-of-the-box” thinking. Riyadh seems open to negotiating peace in Yemen. TASS reported that on Tuesday Al-Jubeir and Lavrov will “discuss possible actions to find options for soonest settlement of that crisis.”
However, it is apropos Syria that we find a whole bunch of narratives falling by the wayside. Thus, the alienation between the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and the rest of the Arab world is turning out to be not so irreversible, as previously thought. The head of Syria’s powerful National Security Bureau Brig. Gen. Ali Mamlouk was received by Mohammad bin Salman in Riyadh in late July.
And on Thursday Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem arrived in Muscat after a two-day visit to Tehran. Of course, Oman has a rare genius for undertaking mediatory missions and has a unique foreign policy amongst the GCC states of keeping a line open to Tehran at all times.
Most probably, the ground for Moallem’s visit was prepared by the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Oman was the first country Zarif visited after the Iran deal was reached in Vienna, carrying the message that Tehran hopes to build bridges with the GCC capitals.
Indeed, there is growing speculation about a likely meeting of the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria. The eminence grise of Iranian politics, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani made a hugely significant remark in the weekend: “We [Tehran] do not inherently have any issues with Saudi Arabia … Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain are among the issues that have created a distance … It is possible to normalize the situation with a swift move … I really believe it is possible. However, we have to see where these events lead, which is very important.”
The narrative used to be that Saudi Arabia will “never accept” an Iran nuclear deal. Well, it has. The Saudi expectation today is that Iran should “moderate” its regional policies of interference in Arab countries. It main demand today is that the United States should undertake commitments to be the provider of security to its Gulf allies.
Again, the narrative used to be that Saudi Arabia would rally an “anti-Iran” united front of Arab states (and Israel); that it would play the sectarian card to isolate Iran; that it would entangle Iran in the web of the Islamic State; that it too would develop a nuclear bomb – or at least buy one off the Pakistani shelf; that it would sit out the Obama presidency to wait for better days, and so on. But there is no sign of anything of this – or all of this – happening.
So, what is the new narrative? Rafsanjani has been very wise – “However, we have to see where these events lead, which is very important.”
Fundamentally, there is a contradiction that everyone is pretending not to notice. The point is, the Middle East crisis is not of Iran’s making. Iran may have a role to play in the politics of the region and can lend a hand in easing the crisis, but that is only a part of the effort.
Iran didn’t engineer the coup in Egypt, which returned that country to authoritarian rule. With or without Iran’s help, there will still be resistance to the Saudi domination of Yemen. The Shi’ite empowerment in Bahrain cannot be shoved under the carpet. Saudi Arabia itself needs to transform and become contemporaneous with the 21st century. Most certainly, Iran has had nothing to do with the bloody chaos that prevails in Libya.
What we are witnessing is that the Iran nuclear deal has reset the power dynamic that is over three decades old. With the certainties that the ancient animosities had provided evaporating, it is as if the door has opened by itself in a haunted house.
It could be hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucination – or possibly sleep paralysis. Or, it could be that the Bernoulli’s principle in fluid dynamics is at work, named after the 18thcentury Swiss mathematician and physicist Daniel Bernoulli – an increase in the speed of the fluid occurs simultaneously with a decrease in the fluid’s potential energy.
To be sure, there is a huge uptick of diplomatic activity all around. The Iran nuclear deal has shaken up old assumptions and there are signs of a new willingness by the Gulf players to cross the fences they had previously erected with deliberation.
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