Dialogue over dispute – Iran and Saudi Arabia

April 21, 2021 5:15 PM

The superpowers supplying arms, technology and dangerous ideas through their secret designs are the unwanted triggers and catalysts for calamity.

Peace has no alternative when uncertainty is the only viable outcome even under the worst circumstances.Peace has no alternative when uncertainty is the only viable outcome even under the worst circumstances. (Reuters image)

By Amb Anil Trigunayat

The problem in the Gulf has been the contestation for religious and geo-political influence between the two major powers – Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Islamic Republic of Iran. More so since 1969 when the current conservative Islamic regime with Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. Prior to that even Israel had good relations with Tehran as they all were on the same American side and part of its Cold war alliance network. Last four decades or so have been replete with trilateral undermining and mutually destructive efforts on all sides. Result was obvious – Greater instability, hardening of positions and overt and clandestine attacks against one another while localised alliances often based on religious underpinnings have been built. Some leaders in these countries might entertain the grand idea of a possible victory but sane observers shudder the thought. Almost all realise that unless everyone wants to do hara-kiri the mutual destruction is assured since all are armed to the teeth. The superpowers supplying arms, technology and dangerous ideas through their secret designs are the unwanted triggers and catalysts for calamity. They make money by selling arms under the garb of geo-economics and for retaining the loyalty of their surrogates for their own geo-political games.

Peace has no alternative when uncertainty is the only viable outcome even under the worst circumstances. It seems to be the season of talks among rivals even if not openly acknowledged. One such welcome development was the reported meeting between the Saudi and Iranian officials last week. Again, it has not been acknowledged but a move in the right direction at the same time. The two are currently at loggerheads on Yemen apart from their traditional fighting arena. Saudi Arabia and US are keen to end the unwinnable and expensive Yemen war, but Houthis appear to be on a free run arguably whistled by the Iranians for whom it might be a negotiating advantage at a lesser cost. Their drone and missile attacks have been dangerous and at one point disabled more than half of Saudi oil supplies after an attack on Aramco facilities last year. In recent times these attacks have increased in frequency causing more damage. Hence, talks are necessary at the regional and bilateral level to diffuse the situation. Without confirming Iran’s Foreign Ministry said it always welcomes dialogue with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The two severed diplomatic relations in 2016 when Saudi embassy was attacked.

Iraq has been trying to mediate between Riyadh and Tehran. Reports indicated that senior officials met to discuss bilateral issues, Yemen and JCPOA – the nuclear deal that is likely to be revived by the Biden Administration. Iraqi NSA Qassem Al Araji met the Saudi Ambassador in Baghdad and readout said they reviewed the political and security situation in the region and “ways to end the differences in a way that serves the interests of the region’s countries and peoples,”. Iranian Ambassador there also stated that “We have not yet reached clear results and significant progress. Let us wait for the work to go forward and we can see practical results.”

King Salman in a cabinet meeting this week, renewed the call for Iran to engage in ongoing negotiations on its nuclear program in Vienna, avoid escalation and not expose the region to more tension. Statement further added that Riyadh was closely following the current developments on Iran’s nuclear programme. There is grave concern as the tensions and attacks, on each other’s key installations between Tehran and Tel Aviv, have heightened as Israel vehemently opposes the revival of the nuclear deal and US initiative to do so. Israeli leaders have conveyed to their US counterparts that if their security was compromised, they will escalate to protect their interests which may lead to Tehran not even trusting the outcome or the sincerity of the negotiations. Everything remains in a flux. Meanwhile, one has witnessed the extensive diplomatic activity by the Chinese and Russian Foreign Ministers in the Gulf, who are keen to facilitate reduction in tensions between the arch-rivals. It will also help the Americans. Ofcourse, Saudis, were unhappy and opposed to the nuclear deal ab initio but this time round seeing the intent of the Biden Administration and their own limitations with the current US dispensation, they are backing the return of US to the deal while hoping that missile and other concerns regarding Iranian backed non-state actors will be dealt with in due course.

As the Saudis and other Gulf countries are wary of shrinking US security umbrella the options elsewhere are being explored even as ad hoc arrangements to neutralise the irritant if possible. No wonder that after the visit, of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last month to the region including signing of $ 400 bn comprehensive strategic deal with Iran, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) spoke to President Xi Jinping this week and announced that he was working on a Middle East Green Initiative and Summit to combat climate change and was ready to take the bilateral relationship to a new level. Calling China as a “trusted brother, MBS expressed his desire to promote a “strategic link-up” between its Vision 2030 plan to diversify its economy away from oil and Xi’s signature Belt and Road trade and infrastructure initiative.

There is no dearth of Peace plans for bridging the gulf among various gulf and volatile West Asian region. The US’s Abraham Accords already have yielded a watershed dynamic which is often perceived by Tehran as anti-Iran. Turkey is trying to temper its relationships with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. Qatar’s blockade by the Quartet is nearly over after Saudi initiative at Al Ula Summit supported by Trump. In Libya a Government of National Unity appears to be succeeding. President Biden also has some plans for Palestine as they normalise their severed ties with Ramallah. Still Syria and Yemen and popular discontent in some other Arab countries often referred to as Arab Spring 2.0 could spring up unintended consequences and pose difficult challenges with skewed geopolitical contestation in evidence. In order to bring about some peace in the region by the regional countries themselves Iran came up with its Hormuz Peace Plan (HOPE) . China is proposing a Middle East Forum and Russia has its own Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf. Some others like India want good and friendly relations with all and could help, if needed. But while others could facilitate reduction in tension and help in arranging the dialogue the regional powers must decide if they would prefer peace and development over mutually assured destruction as the pandemic is already decimating their economic and political heft.

(The author is Former Ambassador of India to Jordan, Libya and Malta. Currently he is President, MIICCIA Chamber of Commerce. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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