Officials in Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's administration may be open to pursuing more open relations with Saudi Arabia, an analyst says. (Atta Kenare/Agence France-Presse)
MANAMA — Although Saudi Arabia is skeptical of a US-Iranian rapprochement and the kingdom faces lost oil revenue if sanctions are dropped against Tehran, it will remain a regional heavyweight, experts said.
According to Nigel Inkster, director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Saudi Arabia is better off with Iran buried under sanctions and economically crippled, but if a US-Iranian rapprochement does happen, America will not abandon the kingdom for Iran.
“Well yes, of course, in the short term, Saudi Arabia is better off. Of course there are a lot of downsides here if Iran is rehabilitated and able to start engaging in full-scale oil and gas production, then of course that has an impact of global markets and corresponding impact on Saudi Arabia’s capacity to raise revenue from its own oil sales,” said Inkster, former director of operations of the British secret intelligence service, MI6.
“Politically, too, because Saudi Arabia for some considerable amount of time has derived benefit from this status [as a US ally], and this status now becomes diminished if relations with Iran are better. I am not sure that they are necessarily going to see the pendulum swing whereby America abandons Saudi Arabia and develops the same sort of relationship with Iran. I think the geopolitics are somewhat rather different,” he added.
David Weinberg, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, sees Saudi Arabia as always being “in the driver’s seat” because its vast oil supplies give it influence over global oil prices.
“Similarly, Saudi Arabia is clearly viewed as an important stakeholder with regard to pressing regional security issues, such as Syria and Egypt. Yet the United States is pursuing policies in areas such as Iran and Syria that the Saudis clearly do not care for,” he said.
“Further, there are major differences of opinion as to whether Saudi Arabia uses its international influence constructively or for short-sighted objectives; for instance, propping up yet another dictatorship in Egypt or bolstering dangerous jihadists in Syria.”
Weinberg added that President Hassan Rouhani’s camp in Tehran believes there are advantages in pursuing engagement with Saudi Arabia.
“The Saudis have indicated that they may be open to a visit by former Iranian President [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani, but obviously, such a visit has yet to transpire.”
The Saudis pursued their own engagement effort with Iran in the 1990s at America’s expense, Weinberg said, slowing down America’s investigation into the bombings at Khobar (apparently facilitated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard) as a bargaining chip in their relationship with Tehran.
“However, an Iranian-Saudi understanding is much less likely, given the decade of confrontation between Sunni Arabs and Iran’s Shiite clients in places like Iraq and Syria,” he said.
The US sees a more equivocal, balanced relationship between the kingdom and Iran.
“I don’t see the United States making a sudden rush for the door and pausing to make a farewell to its ally Saudi Arabia; I didn’t think it was ever going to work like that,” Inkster said.
“The ... argument is that now America is energy independent and doesn’t need the Middle East. These arguments are made and are not well thought through, and I don’t think they have any real substance,” he added.
Weinberg said US President Barack Obama made remarks in recent interviews with the New Yorker magazine and Bloomberg to suggest he envisions a future competitive, friendly rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and this can be achieved by getting Iran to roll back its subversive activities in the gulf after reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal.
“The downside of this approach is that it means Iran’s reign of terror through its Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] will likely continue unimpeded, until Tehran discovers it cannot achieve integration into the international community unless it negotiates on this issue as well as on the nuclear file,” Weinberg said.
“In the meantime, the Saudis perceive America’s approach as pursuing a deal on the nuclear file while leaving them at the mercy of the IRGC because the IRGC issues aren’t being brought more insistently onto the table.”
Inkster said some gulf countries have voiced concerns about a US-Iranian relationship.
“My take on it is that paradoxically, a US-Iranian rapprochement might ... be the one thing that injects greater stability into the region, simply because it would actually diminish the imperative of the Iranian state to behave in ways that are destabilizing,” he said. “A more self-confident Iran, an Iran that doesn’t feel that it’s about to be attacked by the great Satan, might actually be a more responsible actor in the region.
“It might also perhaps help to reduce some of the drivers of wider Sunni-Shiite confrontation that we see taking place, playing out now in Iraq, playing out now in Syria and playing out in the Levant. It’s not by any means a certainty that this will happen, but it is an outcome that one could envisage.”
The former spy chief said US dependency on the region and regional dependency on the US will not diminish. Major US allies are still critically dependent on Middle Eastern energy sources, thus it is in the US strategic interest to ensure optimal stability within energy markets.
Weinberg said the US might be tempted to open Iran’s oil resources to international markets.
“This should not be done until the Iranians have indicated that they are going to behave more responsibly in the gulf and the Levant,” he said. “Either way, the Saudis would view increased Iranian oil production as a dire threat to their leverage over oil global markets.”
Officials in Iran’s Foreign Ministry just completed a high-profile visit to Kuwait, Weinberg said.
“The Iranians [have] even greater leverage over Qatar and Oman because those two states share major energy interests with Tehran,” he said. “Iran has used its leverage to try and buy their friendliness on other issues, such as commerce or military coordination. These two states are considerably outside the dominant viewpoint dictated by the Saudis within the Gulf Cooperation Council.”
Last week, Iran conducted military meetings with Omani officials and naval exercises with Pakistan.
Saudi Arabia is facing difficulties because a status it has been comfortable with for some time is being called into question, and there is uncertainty over a leadership transition, Inkster said.
“In Saudi Arabia, we’re now seeing an explosion of social media, and I think this is a matter of discomfort and concern to the Saudi state, raising all sorts of questions about the sustainability of a status quo that’s been around since 1979. ... It would be in nobody’s interest for Saudi Arabia to get involved in serious difficulties; the knock-on effect of that would be clearly undesirable,” he said. “So I don’t think it never is nor should be about [moving] away from Saudi Arabia toward Iran; I don’t think that makes any sense.” ■