Editor’s Piece: Iran at Saudi Arabia’s doors

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Kham

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisel with Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei in 2006 (AFP/Getty Images)

On Friday, Sadr al-Din al Qabanji in Najaf criticised the Saudi verdict to execute the Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, one of the most influential figures amongst the minority Shia population to the east of the Kingdom. Following the verdict, Iran and its proxies – Houthi in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon – issued a series of threats prompting concerns of potential internal unrest within Saudi Arabia itself.

These threats carry a degree of weight behind them given the extensive change in the shape and power dynamics of the Middle East that has taken place in recent times. Unlike its regional rivals, Iran has gradually expanded its sphere of influence and outdone its rivals in every proxy battle. Iran has made no secret of its regional ambitions, reflected in its nuclear program and aggressive foreign policy. It has been a firm financial and military backer of Hezbollah in Lebanon; Houthi in Yemen; the Shia parties in Iraq consisting of the likes of Maliki, Sadr and Hakim; as well as Bashar al-Assad in Syria who has managed to preserve his position only with the help of the Iranians.

This influence cannot be understated. In Iraq, Maliki survived a 10-year spell despite the deteriorating situation due to the support of Iran. In 2006 Maliki alienated his key Shia ally Moqtada Sadr and when the government was subsequently close to collapse and the country on the brink of civil war, Sadr was summoned to Tehran. Upon his return, he re-established a Shia alliance with Maliki, allowing the latter to remain in power even though there was clear enmity (and blood) between the two men.

Even following Maliki’s downfall, dubbed by many as a sign that the Americans were back in force, the Iranians successfully managed to prevent the Americans from pushing the new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to appoint their preferred Defence and Interior ministers. Iran successfully managed to regroup the Shia parties and then pressed for Hadi-Al Amiri, the head of the Badr brigade and accused of a number of transgressions, to become Defence Minister. The Americans, who were unable to unite the Sunni factions behind a particular candidate, were forced to allow Abadi, historically close to the Iranians by virtue of having been a member of the Dawa party for most of his life, to leave the posts empty and delay the appointments for over a month, bringing the two ministries under his control and so, de facto, under Iranian influence.

In Yemen, few could have honestly predicted that Houthi would march once more from Saada and, this time, reach the doors of Sana’a. Even fewer could have predicted that Houthi would eventually hold the keys to the capital and expand his reach to the key areas of Hodeida on the Red Sea and the border crossing with Saudi Arabia at Haradh. However Houthi, who has made no secret of his admiration of Iran and whose brand of Zaydism, the prominent sect of Islam in Yemen, appears to veer gradually closer to the Shia brand of Islam propagated by Iran, is now the de facto ruler of Yemen. His success prompted Alireza Zakanian, an Iranian member of Parliament, to claim that ‘[Iran] now controls four capitals; Baghdad, Sana’a, Damascus and Beirut’.

The reality is that Alireza Zakanian’s statement is not far from the truth, and President Obama appears to concur. Obama’s realigning of his foreign policy to open talks with Iran over their nuclear program is an acknowledgement of the new status quo in the region, as is his refusal to challenge the Assad regime on the ground by providing effective weapons and aid to the Free Syria Army. As a result, the US appears to have adopted a policy of backing Kurdish independence in a bid to create a new buffer to the Iranian expansion (a subject that will be expanded on in the near future).

Iran’s sphere of influence now includes Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Geographically, this means that it now surrounds Saudi Arabia from the North (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq); the east where a large Shia population reside and where the Iranian mainland lies just across the Gulf; and the South where Houthi has successfully taken over Sana’a and now controls Hodeida on the Red Sea and the Haradh crossing next to the Saudi Jizan province. Although Saudi Arabia has invested billions in aid to Sisi in Egypt, the Egyptian President has kept a low profile over events in the region in order to make as few enemies as possible without losing key financial allies. Furthermore, with chaos in Libya just across the border, Sisi is unwilling to drag Egypt into a fight that is not his.

However, Iran has not achieved this astonishing progress solely through astute tactical acumen, but also as a result of divisions amongst the Sunni states and a lack of any real coherent foreign policy.

Saudi Arabia, by banning the Muslim Brotherhood, alienated the powerful Islah Party in Yemen which resulted in tribes withdrawing their support for fear of upsetting King Abdullah. This severely weakened the only real opposition to Houthi. They also failed to unite the Sunni factions in Iraq into a polity capable of putting up a strong opposition to Maliki and his Iranian backers.

The failure to solve the internal succession struggle has resulted in the constant shuffling and re-shuffling of ministers. This has affected policy on Syria in particular.  Bandar Bin Sultan, as Head of Intelligence and who was initially in charge of the Syria file, began backing any group willing to fight Assad. His failure to make any headway allowed factions within the family to move for his dismissal, allowing them to appoint a ‘preferred’ candidate in Khaled Bin Bandar (This followed the appointments of two of King Abdullah’s sons as governors of the two key cities of Makkah and Riyadh). Following Bandar Bin Sultan’s failure, the file was handed to Interior Minister Mohammad Bin Nayef, seen by many as a bid to ‘burn’ him with it. However rather than pursue Bandar Bin Sultan’s policy, Mohammad Bin Nayef reversed it and began withdrawing support and seeking more ‘moderate’ rebels in order to stem the flow of ‘Jihadis’ returning to Saudi Arabia who posed a threat to domestic stability.

In Syria, differences between Qatar and Saudi Arabia – the two key financial backers of the opposition- have resulted in the inability of the Syrian Opposition Council to appoint a leader with the former favouring a pro-brotherhood candidate, and the latter a pro-Riyadh candidate. It is believed that this is the true reason behind the Emir of Qatar’s most recent visit to Riyadh, although the outcomes of the discussions are not yet known.

Saudi’s diminishing leadership has been most exposed on the oil front with its inability to provide stable leadership in the region, which has resulted in a lack of discipline amongst the OPEC nations, contributing to a plummeting of oil prices that has implications far wider than simply financial.

In light of the above, the decision of Saudi Arabia not to cut oil production to rein in the price drop as it did in the 80’s does not come as a surprise. Despite analysts claiming that politics is not the motivating factor, it is difficult to see how it cannot be. The shale oil boom in the US has resulted in Obama placing less importance on the historical alliance with the Gulf States as the US’s own reserves have grown enormously. By allowing prices to drop, Saudi Arabia will be able to increase US costs in extracting oil, discouraging the growth of these reserves. Furthermore, the price drop puts a greater strain on Iran which has also slashed prices in order to continue competing. Here, Saudi Arabia is gambling that an already struggling economy will weaken further, putting strain on Iran’s capabilities in providing backing to Houthi, Hezbollah and the like. However, it is difficult to see how long this policy can be maintained before other OPEC nations, who do not have the vast reserves that Saudi Arabia does, begin to pressurise the Kingdom to cut production.

Despite the bleak outlook, possibilities outside of oil remain for Saudi Arabia should it decide to set aside its differences with potentially key allies. Saudi Arabia’s most important aims are to stem the Iranian expansion and to bring down the Assad regime. From a strategic point of view, bringing down the Assad regime breaks the chain of influence (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq) and will be a damaging blow to Iran. Currently, the US is unwilling to exert real effort against the Assad regime due to the lack of an alternative government and the rampant terrorist groups sprawling across large areas in the region.

Reconciling with Qatar and agreeing on a unified policy on Syria will have a positive influence on the Syrian Opposition and allow them to present themselves as a genuine alternative, which may convince the US to exert real effort in training new ‘moderate rebels’. However even if the two nations were to reconcile; and even if the Syrian Opposition were to present themselves as a credible alternative, the Obama administration has shown a lack of appetite for a prolonged war in the region and is unlikely to launch any genuine campaign to bring down Assad.

Saudi Arabia does not necessarily need to rely on the US to bring down Assad. In fact, there is potentially a closer military ally that would welcome a move against Assad and the formation of an alliance that could mount a powerful challenge to Iran’s growing hegemony in the region; Erdogan. Erdogan shares Saudi Arabia’s vehement dislike for Assad and the only factor preventing this, in theory, is the two countries’ opposing views on the Muslim Brotherhood. Setting aside these differences would be a step in the ‘right’ direction and will shake the current status quo.

As for now however, no buffer exists any more between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and King Abdullah will be watching the east of his Kingdom with particular concern as the Iranian machine shows few signs of slowing down.

Sami Hamdi is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Interest. He has extensive experience reporting across the Middle East by virtue of having been a television presenter for Almustakillah Television for the past seven years. He has reported on key events in the region including the Arab Spring, the fall of Morsi in Egypt, the Houthi crisis in Yemen, as well as the battle of influences between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Follow Sami on Twitter @SALHACHIMI and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SALHACHIMI.