By Iran Review
By Amir Hossein Yazdanpanah*
The latest developments in the summit meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Turkish port city of Istanbul as well as what happened in and around the summit once more brought to the light the existing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Recent developments show that Riyadh pursued two goals through participation in this meeting:
A) Taking steps against Iran: The first and most important goal of Saudi Arabia from taking part in the Istanbul meeting was to forge some form of consensus against the Islamic Republic of Iran, which was pursued in the meeting’s final statement. The statement had been actually drawn up in January in Jeddah when Saudi Arabia refrained from issuing visas to Iranian diplomatic delegation, which was supposed to take part in expert meetings aimed at drafting the statement. The statement has 200 paragraphs, including four paragraphs against Iran and one against the Lebanese resistance movement, Hezbollah. However, due to what was called by various news outlets as “differences among some members” in the OIC meeting, the statement, which according to Iranian deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araqchi, had been reached without consensus, was not read out and was simply released through media.
B) Mediation between Ankara and Cairo: The interesting point in this meeting was that the former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation was the current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and as is the rule for international meetings, he should have occupied the chairman’s seat at the Istanbul meeting and should have delivered the seat to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the end of the meeting. However, differences between Turkey and Egypt were too serious to allow Turkey to even invite the Egyptian head of state to take part in this meeting. The Saudi King Salman, who had just been to Cairo, was bent on mediating between his two allies, so that Sisi would take part in the Istanbul meeting. However, his efforts fell short of convincing Sisi to depart for Turkey and the Egyptian foreign minister, who had taken part in the meeting, transferred the chairmanship of the OIC to Erdogan, without even going toward him. As a result, Saudis savored a new defeat in the diplomatic arena.
At present, Saudi Arabia is going through dire straits in the region. If they had withdrawn from Syria crisis when they saw that the issue of Syria is different from what happened in Morocco and Egypt and other countries and could not stand in the face of the Syrian people and Iran, or at least if they had not entered an oil and diplomatic war against Iran, or had not started the war on Yemen, perhaps they could have expected a positive outlook; but now what? A glance at developments taking place between Iran and Saudi Arabia at two regional and international levels will reveal that Saudis are not in good conditions.
1. Regional level
Saudi Arabia has experienced important failures in the face of Iran, at least, on three regional fronts:
1.1. Strengthening of Iran’s standing in the regional balance of power: Russia was militarily present in Syria for about six months during which northern territories of Syria were an operational field for Iran, Russia and Syrian forces against terrorists and their backers. Close cooperation between Iran and Russia and achievements in the field practically led to strengthening of the position of Iran and the Tehran-Moscow axis in the country’s developments and, on the contrary, tensions among supporters of terrorists increased to the level that Turkey finally downed a Russian fighter jet in order to stand against these developments. Of course, this measure did not have any benefit for Turkey. Now, Saudis feel more defeated even compared to six months ago because developments on the ground are currently in favor of the Syrian government and against terrorists.
1.2. Failure in forging practical consensus among regional countries: Saudi officials did their best to trigger practical steps against Iran through the so-called “checkbook diplomacy” and buying various countries using their petrodollars. They also experienced establishment of various coalitions, but none of those coalitions have been of any use to Saudi officials, especially in the past year. Last January, Saudi Arabia took part in two important meetings of Arab countries, which had been held against Iran upon Riyadh’s request, but could not achieve any of its predetermined goals. The meetings of the Arab League, and the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC] in early months of 2016 did not go beyond rhetoric against Iran and ended with presentation of merely bureaucratic statements and resolutions without being able to make a decision on any practical measures against Iran. With regard to Saudi invasion of Yemen, Riyadh could not get such important Islamic countries as Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey in line with its so-called coalition as a result of which the scenario cooked up by Saudi officials to pit the coalition against Iran practically failed. It was during this very Istanbul meeting that other developments also took place, among the most important of which was a meeting between presidents of Iran and Turkey. This issue can lead to further strengthening of the two countries’ trade and economic ties regardless of regional differences that exist between them. This issue was also noticed by the Christian Science Monitor, which carried an article on it titled “…Turkey rolls out the welcome mat for Iran.”
1.3. Developments in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon: The dream for boosting its influence in the capitals of important countries close to Iran by Saudi Arabia was not a dream which could easily come true. Despite all the money spent by Saudis on this dream, it has backfired on them like a boomerang. A country 90 percent of whose annual budget comes from oil revenues, made a great effort to reduce oil prices in order to scuttle Iran’s nuclear negotiations and prevent Iran from regaining its past position in the oil market. However, Saudi Arabia was facing a budgetary shortage of USD 100 billion in 2015, which for the second consecutive year, faced young and inexperienced rulers of Saudi Arabia with major problems. On the other hand, developments on the ground in Iraq and Syria are going ahead against Saudi Arabia’s allies. In Syria, peace negotiations held in the absence of Iran ended in failure, but when Iran was added to the talks, its demands had the first say both in the main context and on the margins of those talks. As a result of Iran’s influence, none of the many rounds of talks held on the future of Syria focused on the fate of the country’s President Bashar Assad, a goal for whose realization Saudis have fought for over five years.
2. International level
2.1. Europe against Saudi Arabia: A number of months have passed since European elites and Western media started to actively work against Saudi Arabia. Germany’s foreign intelligence service, BND, released a report in the winter of 2015 in which it described Saudi Arabia as the origin of terrorists and the US-based newspaper, the New York Times, called Saudi Arabia as the “father” of Daesh terrorist group. Some European experts have even proposed to the European Union to review the level and quality of its relations with Saudi Arabia and turn more toward Iran. It was just last week when Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi visited Tehran during which he clearly noted that “Today, Iran is the most stable country in the region … [and] without the Islamic Republic of Iran it is not possible to establish peace and stability in the region.” Before arriving in Tehran, he openly announced that getting close to Tehran in the fight against terrorism was a goal for Rome, adding, “Traveling to Iran is, in fact, some sort of political investment as friendship with Iran can help the fight against Daesh.” This kind of views on Iran shows that Saudi Arabia has lost the battle to Iran even on international level.
2.2. Outcomes of the nuclear agreement: Like it or not, Saudi Arabia was among staunch opponents of this agreement. Measures taken by Saudi Arabia to undermine the talks in the midst of nuclear negotiations sometimes even worked to increase Iran’s weight. One of those measures was a secret meeting organized by Saudis in Swiss city of Geneva in the fall of 2014, which prevented achievement of an agreement and deferred the talks to the summer of 2015. Saudi Arabia is one of the countries that would find itself at loss when Tehran opens its economy to the world. Apart from such issues as the Islamic Republic of Iran’s ability to build a political system and turn into a role model for other countries, if the nuclear agreement is implemented in full by Western countries, its economic benefits for Iran will limit the maneuvering room for Saudis in the region and under these conditions, Saudi officials would not be able to get themselves more jockeying space by buying off such countries as Djibouti and Sudan.
What will happen now?
All these developments have changed the situation to the detriment of Saudis. They have experienced short-term and long-term failures on several fronts and it seems that two further developments can be expected under these conditions:
Firstly, Saudi Arabia has greatly increased efforts made to boost its hardware military power. A recent report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute announced that Saudi Arabia ranks the third only after the United States and China in terms of military purchases by buying about USD 80 billion worth of arms. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s moves around Iran have greatly increased and following recent failures, examples of which were given above, it is possible, though not very probable, that this country would want to embark on direct adventurist measures against Iran. Therefore, vigilance in the face of Saudi Arabia’s moves and showing self-restraint in the face of blind adventurism by Saudi officials is a necessary step. In the next step, Saudis will not only increase their interference in Syria and Yemen, but will also focus on other issues in order to exact revenge on Iran for their recent failures. Africa, perhaps, will be one of the regions where they will embark on adventurism in order to gain false victories. This issue has been evident in the type of relations that Saudi Arabia has established with Sudan, Nigeria, South Africa and some other African countries.
Secondly, instrumental use of regional and international organizations like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation or the Arab League by Saudi Arabia against countries such as Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq can basically cast doubt on legitimacy of decisions made by these bodies, whose raison d’être was to create unity among Islamic countries on the main issues facing the Islamic world, such as the occupation of Palestine. Therefore, it is quite likely that changes may be made to composition and structure of these bodies so that they would turn into more effective organizations when countries like Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Oman and the likes of them take the center stages.
Amir Hossein Yazdanpanah, Expert on International Issues