Wed, Nov 15, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Saudi shakeup gives US an opening with Iran

This can go two ways: toward either war or a new understanding of the balance of Middle Eastern power

By Amir Handjani and Alireza Nader  /  Bloomberg View

Illustration: Mountain People

The latest political earthquake in Saudi Arabia has led to much speculation over the future of the kingdom and the Gulf Arab states. However, most analyses have ignored the far bigger issue looming over the region’s upheavals: prospects for a military confrontation between the US and Iran are rapidly escalating.

Just as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was consolidating absolute power — cracking down on the last royal relatives, billionaire investors, Wahhabi clerics and rights advocates who posed a threat to his reign — the kingdom announced that it was holding Iran responsible for a missile attack on Riyadh by Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The group does have ties to Tehran, but Saudi claims remain unsubstantiated.

Meanwhile, a close Saudi ally, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, abruptly resigned on Nov. 4 while on a visit to Riyadh, citing fears of an Iranian attempt on his life. The Lebanese army and Hezbollah, Iran’s ally in Lebanon, deny any such plot. Lebanon is increasingly becoming a flashpoint in the cold war between Tehran and Riyadh.

If Saudi Arabia forces a showdown with Iran, the US would find itself in the middle of it. Statements by US President Donald Trump and his national security team point to a more aggressive US posture toward Tehran. This pushback includes decertifying Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear pact, despite overwhelming evidence of Iran’s compliance, as well as imposing sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Hezbollah and Iran’s ballistic missile program.

The Trump administration’s desire to isolate and pressure Iran reflects outdated thinking that does not take into account the shifting realities of today’s Middle East. The most likely outcome is it will inadvertently strengthen Iran’s hand in the region, much as former US president George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq did in 2003.

Iran is now, arguably, the most powerful regional actor in the Middle East. Tehran is a decisive player in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and its influence extends to Yemen and Afghanistan. Pushing back on Iranian power would mean confronting Iranian forces in countries where they are embedded with local militias or have been invited by host governments, as is the case in Iraq and Syria.

Furthermore, Iran is no longer a global pariah. It has a strong partnership with Russia in Syria and increasingly shared interest with Turkey on issues relating to Kurdish independence and strengthening the central government in Baghdad.

Turkey and Iran back Qatar in its dispute with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. That quarrel has created openings for Iran to project itself as a stabilizing force in the Middle East to other major powers such as China and India.

With the Arab world and the Gulf Cooperation Council deeply divided, Washington’s attempts to isolate Iran run counter to European, Russian and Chinese attempts to cajole Tehran to play a more constructive regional role, one befitting its status as a rising power.

US attempts to undermine the nuclear deal will likely only draw other global actors to Iran’s side, especially as European nations could view Tehran as a more responsible partner in upholding commitments, in contrast to Washington’s new unpredictability.

Iran is also increasingly turning to Asia as a source of credit and commerce. China views Iran as a critical component of its “One Belt, One Road” economic initiative, which seeks to connect Beijing to the Middle East and Europe.

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