Saudi Arabia and Iran's clashing styles in regional policy
There are even striking similarities between the self-ascribed Islamic State (IS) and Iran’s sectarian policies, where both seek to intensify sectarian differences and exploit them to their advantage.
Earlier this month, King Salman gave his first wide-ranging speech since assuming the throne in January. On foreign policy, he said Saudi Arabia is “fully committed to Islamic teachings of love and peace,” as well as “international treaties, agreements and covenants.” As such, it respects the principles of “sovereignty of states and rejects interference in their internal affairs.”
Saudi Arabia believes in cooperation with other Arab and Muslim countries to address common concerns, such as the Palestine cause. It supports pan-Arab and pan-Muslim forums to resolve differences and agree on common policies. Saudi Arabia is the main contributor to Arab and Islamic funds for development.
Globally, Saudi policy is based on “maintenance of security and stability, peace and justice.” It believes in “dialogue to resolve differences and rejects the use of violence and threats.” It is committed to “combating extremism and terrorism in all its forms, and working with friends and allies and with international institutions to deal with its root causes.” By contrast, Iranian officials have overtly flaunted their conquests in the region, giddy about the “return” of an ancient empire. In Iraq, for all practical purposes, Iran has taken over the country, as Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said in a press conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Riyadh on March 5.
In Tikrit, it is the Iranian general, Qassem Souleimani, who is leading the forces. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in his recent Congressional testimony that two-thirds of those forces are based in Iran and receive their orders from Tehran. Brig. Gen. Ahmad Reza Pourdastan, commander of Iran’s land army, said that “five divisions of Iranian forces have penetrated 40 kilometers inside Iraqi territory,” claiming that it did that in coordination with the Iraqi government.
Commenting on events in Iraq and elsewhere, Ali Younesi, adviser to President Rouhani for Minority Affairs, said in a statement in Tehran this month that “Today, Iran has become an empire again, as it was throughout history. Its capital is Baghdad, the center of our culture and identity as in the past. The geography of Iran and Iraq is indivisible, just as our culture is indivisible. All of the Middle East is Iranian and its people are part of Iran. We intend to form an Iranian Union in this region.”
While his style is openly hubristic, Younesi’s comments are not unique. They reflect official discourse about Iran’s cultural, religious and political hegemony in the region, based on delusional claims that plant the seeds of ethnic and sectarian strife in the region, as we have seen in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and as far away as West Africa and Central Asia.
It appears that some Iranian officials are getting ahead of themselves: They look at signing of the nuclear deal and lifting of sanctions as signals to unleash Iranian ambitions in the region.
Iranian attitudes feed on what they perceive as US acquiescence. After all, Iranian forces are fighting in Iraq and Syria under US air cover, even if they officially do not “coordinate.” US airstrikes make it easy for the Iranian-led forces to conquer territory. The fact that the US has not challenged Iranian presence in either Iraq or Syria is seen by Iranians as tacit agreement. In the eyes of many in the region, the US is abandoning its historical role in the region, reducing its problems to those of the IS and Al-Qaeda. For example, despite official pronouncements, the US is reducing support for moderate Syrian opposition, restricting its aid to fighting the IS but not Assad regime. And in Iraq, Gen. Dempsey commended Iran’s military role in Tikrit, despite his misgivings about negative sectarian implications.
US change of heart is due partly to its political cycle. President Obama’s term will officially end in January 2017. The huge losses his party sustained in congressional elections in Fall 2014 have made him a “lame duck,” unable to take decisive action in all but non-controversial cases. While the US may afford to distance itself from the region for some time, we do not have that luxury. We need to face various escalating challenges, including the risk of nuclear proliferation. At best, the nuclear deal would only delay for a short time Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons.
Iran’s growing ambitions and US abandonment should propel Saudi Arabia and its regional allies to safeguard their own interests. While dialogue is necessary, it works best when it is started from a point of strength.
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