By James M. Dorsey
With war and peace hanging in the balance, tensions in the Gulf are running hot and cold.
Saudi and Iranian leaders are this week walking back from the brink, signalling that they want to avoid outright military confrontation and manage rather than resolve differences.
In fact, there is every reason to believe that neither Riyadh nor Tehran has a vested interest in a definitive solution of the Middle East and North Africa’s multiple problems.
The trick for men like Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani is to find a controllable way of maintaining their potentially existential bitter rivalry without fighting what could be a devastating regional war.
To do so, both men appear to be making the right noises against the backdrop of an evolving US policy that is forcing Saudi Arabia to rethink its almost decade-long, often reckless and assertive go-it-alone foreign and defense policy and Iran to seek ways to level the playing field.
“The Anti-Iran Alliance is not just faltering, it’s crumbling. Bolton is gone; Bibi is going; MBZ has struck his deal with Iran; MBS is not far behind,” tweeted Council on Foreign Relations distinguished fellow and former US Middle East negotiator Martin S. Indyk.
Mr. Indyk was referring to former US national security advisor John Bolton and embattled Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu while identifying United Arab Emirates crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed and his Saudi counterpart and namesake, Prince Mohammed, by their initials.
Signalling a change in tone, Saudi Arabia has gone quiet on its investigation into responsibility for last month's attacks on key Saudi oil facilities after earlier stopping just short of blaming Iran.
Prince Mohammed has meanwhile welcomed potential face-to-face talks between US President Donald J. Trump and Mr. Rouhani, saying “absolutely... This is what we all ask for.”
Prince Mohammed’s remarks were tempered by Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs Adel al-Jubeir who spelled out the kingdom’s demands.
Without clarifying whether these were a pre-condition for talks or issues to be discussed, Mr. Al-Jubeir’s demands included “ending Iran’s involvement in the affairs of other countries; stopping support for terrorist organizations; abandoning the policy of destruction and sowing conflict; and freezing the plan to develop nuclear weapons and the ballistic-missile program.”
In response, Iran insisted that Saudi Arabia freeze its multibillion-dollar arms purchases from the United States, stop its intervention in Yemen and end discrimination against the Shiite Muslim minority in Saudi Arabia.
The chances of the two countries accepting the other’s conditions are virtually nil.
Nonetheless, Mr. Rouhani, with France, Iraq and Pakistan seeking to mediate, has kept the door open for talks with the United States which withdrew last year from the 2015 international agreement that curbs the Islamic republic's nuclear program and has since imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran.
Addressing the Iranian cabinet this week, Mr. Rouhani termed a four-point plan put forward by French president Emmanuel Macron “acceptable.”
The plan calls for the United States to lift sanctions on Iran and allow it to freely export its oil and collect revenue in return for an Iranian commitment not to pursue nuclear weapons and help ensure Gulf security.
Mr. Macron’s proposal includes a US$15 billion credit line that would enable Iran to export oil and would also restore the P5+1 framework of signatories of the nuclear accord, France, Britain, Russia, China, Germany and the US.
Like with Mr. Al Jubeir’s demands, the question is what comes first, the chicken or the egg.
Mr. Trump sees lifting of sanctions as the outcome of talks while Mr. Rouhani has insisted that sanctions be removed prior to negotiations.
To step up pressure, Iran has been gradually breaching the terms of the accord and increasing tensions that bring the region closer to the brink of war in a bid to position negotiations as the only alternative.
Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh put the changing mood on public display at a Russian energy conference chaired by President Vladimir Putin when he described his Saudi counterpart, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, a son of King Salman, the Saudi monarch, as “a friend.”
“Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman has been a friend for over 22 years,” Mr. Zanganeh said.
The two men were later seen holding hands together with Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) Mohammed Barkindo and speaking on the sidelines of the conference in the first such encounter since the attack on the oil facilities.
The new mood could over time, against the backdrop of mounting Gulf doubts about the reliability of the United States’ regional defence umbrella, make a Chinese-backed Russian proposal for a multilateral security architecture more attractive.
The Russian proposal is built on the notion that security in the Gulf would be better served by an architecture that downplays regional rivalries rather than accentuating them as part of the US umbrella that is rooted in the Saudi-Iranian divide and designed to protect the conservative Arab monarchies against the Islamic republic.
The Russian approach theoretically could accommodate the survival strategies of both the Iranian regime and the Saudi ruling family.
Upholding Iran’s revolutionary façade requires the existence of an imperialist foreign threat that also gives a lease on life to the vested economic interests of hardliners grouped around the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Saudi Arabia, figuring that it needs at least six years to develop its natural gas potential to the degree that it can compete with Iran, home to the world’s second largest reserves, may want to see an Iranian regime that is weakened and possibly destabilized, but not on the verge of collapse.
Said Saudi foreign policy scholar Yasmine Farouk: “Time is of the essence. This moment in the Middle East’s international politics offers incentives and deterrents that Saudi Arabia can leverage in its negotiations with Iran. The longer the kingdom waits, the less influence it will have on the final outcome of its conflict with Iran, and on any future multilateral framework for security in the Gulf.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture