Iran seems poised to play a bigger role in the Middle Eastern region, or so it seems, in the backdrop of events leading up to the recent conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The tussle between Saudi Arabia and Iran is threatening the already flimsy regional stability. The escalation in tension has further exposed the struggle for power in the Middle East region. Experts believe Iran may have gained more than it lost in the process at the moment.
After Saudi Arabia executed a Shi’ite cleric, Nimr Al-Nimr, protesters stormed the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran, and Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with Iran, the situation continues to worsen even further.
The reaction against Iran was swift. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), an ally of Saudi Arabia, downgraded diplomatic ties with Iran. Saudi Arabia’s allies in the Arabian Peninsula followed suit by, what they call, “downgrading diplomatic ties” with Iran. Interestingly though, most of Saudi Arabia’s allies did not completely sever diplomatic relations with Iran, as Saudi Arabia did, except Bahrain, which is closely allied with Riyadh.
Iran came into limelight as the two countries were involved in proxy wars in both Yemen and Syria and where Saudi Arabia does not seem to have achieved good results, especially in Yemen where it is facing stiff resistance.
The recent conflict between Tehran and Riyadh also challenges the US’s ability to smoothly deal with its allies in the region. Understandably, Saudi Arabia is not impressed with US’s increasing tilt towards Iran.
Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on the other hand, has in a recent article in The New York Times accused Saudi Arabia of reacting in response to Iran’s successful nuclear deal with the US. “The Saudi leadership must now make a choice: They can continue supporting extremists and promoting sectarian hatred; or they can opt to play a constructive role in promoting regional stability,” Zarif said. On its part, the House spokesman Josh Earnest has asked “both sides to deescalate tensions.”
For Iran, the conflict could also result in a battle for world oil market share. Iran has set aggressive goals to increase oil production in the near future. While Saudi Arabia continues to produce 10 million barrels per day, Iran wants to increase production by as much as 2 million barrels a day from its present 2.8 million barrels.
Iran has taken some tangible steps to be able to leave an impact in the regional power equation. Iran seems set to curb its nuclear capabilities. If it does, the UN will ease economic sanctions, meaning more than $50 billion in frozen assets.
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Dr Talat Masood, defence analyst, believes, “Iran can play a leading role in the region,” but he warns in the same breath that “it should not be a hegemonic role because being hegemonic will invite response from other countries in the region. It has a great responsibility over its shoulders in the entire region.”
Masood contextualises the issue, “Saudi Arabia is engaged in sectarian and power struggle with Iran. Both have been trying to dominate the region but Saudi Arabia feels particularly insecure after the US-Iran nuclear deal.”
But he adds, “Iran is emerging as a powerful player in the region after the nuclear deal with the US. The West is more inclined towards Iran today despite the fact that Iran supports Assad in Syria, which irks Saudi Arabia. So, Iran’s future is not questionable. Iran has a relatively more representative government and society. Its industrial and educational base is stronger.”
Iran is making calculated and careful moves, believes Dr Hassan Askari Rizvi, an expert on international relations. “Iran is working on two levels — to complete its nuclear arrangement with the US and other Western powers to enter the international system to gain economic benefits. Secondly, it wants a broader arrangement of international and regional powers to come and solve the regional issue of the Middle East. So, it would like to work with non-Arab regional powers, such as Pakistan and Turkey.”
He notes that the Iranian government has not consulted Pakistan on the current situation as Saudi Arabia has done, “One Iranian delegation is in Pakistan these days but it is here on a regular visit to discuss the border situation of Sistan and Balochistan region,” explains Rizvi, adding, “I think Pakistan should take the initiative and brief Iran on its position.”
He points to the improved diplomatic relations between the US and Iran, “Iran has good relations with Russia; its relations with the US have also improved. That we can see how the Iranians quickly released the US sailors who had entered its waters.”
Rizvi believes Iran is playing its cards well, “Iran will certainly benefit when the UN and US sanctions are completely lifted. The IAEA will present a report to the UN in this regard later this year. And UN sanctions can be lifted on the basis of that report. Initially, the UN has released some funding.”
Rizvi further adds, “Iran is reported to have exported its 20 per cent enriched uranium to Russia. In fact, for peaceful purposes, uranium can be enriched from 3 to 7 per cent. So, Iran is preparing the ground for opening up to the international system.”
Others believe Iran’s overreaction has made matters worse. Dr Moonis Ahmer, a senior analyst, believes, “Iran over-reacted on the execution of the Shi’ite cleric. There were many Sunni Wahabis among those who were executed. It was an internal matter of Saudi Arabia as the cleric was a Saudi citizen.”
Ahmer agrees with the assessment that Iran has got some space at the world stage after the US-Iran nuclear deal. “Number one: Iran has fulfilled the nuclear conditions imposed by the IAEA and other Western powers. Two: The US is also not very happy with the Saudi regime itself. And all these things go in Iran’s favour despite the fact that it supports organisations like Hezbollah.”