Saudi Arabia, Iran and the possibilities of détente

Recent pronouncements from Riyadh and Tehran could be supportive of peace and security in the Gulf littoral

August 10, 2021 12:02 am | Updated 01:38 pm IST

FILE PHOTO: Oil tankers pass through the Strait of Hormuz, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed//File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Oil tankers pass through the Strait of Hormuz, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed//File Photo

Individuals and human collectives have memories and time spans. The two do not converge but at times overlap. The latter are infrequent yet meaningful. Prudence, if not wisdom, lies in using them. One such occasion betides the Gulf region at this juncture.

The Persian Gulf is a nearly 990 kilometre-long body of water that separates Iran from the Arabian Peninsula. Seven member States of the United Nations lay claim to washing their hands or feet in its waters. At its narrowest point, in the Strait of Hormuz, it is only 54 km wide and the main shipping channels that pass through it are 30km-35 km wide and 8km-12 km wide. They are critical to the transportation of crude oil and LNG to global markets.

For over a century till the early 1970s, the Persian Gulf was a British lake. The imperial withdrawal propelled the United States to step in as the guarantor of the sub-region with its Twin-Pillars (Iran-Saudi Arabia) policy. An abortive effort was also made by Oman through the Muscat Conference in November 1976; it floundered on the obstinacy of Baathist Iraq. Bilateral efforts were also made by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and the Shah of Iran; King Faisal initiated his Islamic solidarity policy in 1964 and visited Iran in December 1965; in 1966 Saudi Defence Minister Sultan bin Abdulaziz described the Iranian-Saudi friendship as a perfect example of Islamic brotherhood and neighbourly relations; the two States were also active members of the Five Power ‘Safari Club’ for intelligence sharing.

Impact of unrest

The Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 disturbed the strategic balance in the region and put an end to efforts to develop a regional consensus on security issues. Over the next decade, and particularly during the period of the Iraq-Iran war, the effort of the Gulf monarchies and of their western supporters was to destabilise and wish away the revolutionary regime. The formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981 was part of the effort to reassure the Gulf sheikhdoms. The end of the war and the cooling of tensions allowed saner perceptions to emerge. These were spelt out among others by the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister in the Manama Dialogue in December 2004. In 1996, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami told the Saudi Defence Minister that a defence pact would be mutually beneficial. Crown Prince Abdullah attended the Islamic Summit conference in Tehran in December 9-11, 1997. This was seen in Tehran as ‘a good beginning for removing misunderstandings’. Subsequent developments in the region relating to Syria and the Hezbollah on the one side and the Saudi intervention in the Yemen on the other conflict pushed back, even reversed, the developing perceptions in Riyadh.

Yemen in particular has been critical to Saudi perceptions of national security. The clash of viewpoints dates back to the 1930s when King Abdulaziz ibn Saud was expanding the boundaries of the Kingdom of Najd to incorporate the western and southern parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Conflict developed over the southern region of Najran and resulted in a Saudi military victory and the Treaty of 1934. This maintained peace till the Egyptian Revolution and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s ‘intoxicating blend of nationalism and radicalism’ that set the region alight. It led to the Yemeni coup of 1962, the Egyptian military intervention in Yemen and the souring of Saudi-Egyptian relations that lasted till the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. This suited the interests of the United States; military assistance programmes and the stationing of U.S. troops during the Kuwait war of 1990 followed. The Trump era and the jettisoning of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action witnessed a qualitative strengthening of ties between them.

The key issues

The last few years have witnessed geopolitical tensions in the Gulf littoral. Most States have been affected adversely by the historically low oil prices and by COVID-19. The GCC has become inoperative with the focus on the boycott of Qatar that is now being reversed. There are new tensions between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh’s access to the Oval Office in Washington is now not what it was in the Donald Trump era. The Abraham Accords between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain have qualitatively influenced the Arab-Israeli calculus in the Persian Gulf States and in the wider Arab world.

More recently, the U.S.’s decision to withdraw forces from Afghanistan and reduce commitments in Iraq has been the subject of discussions on policy options among knowledgeable observers in Washington. One expert has observed that “on balance, the American ground-force base in Kuwait, the Fifth Fleet naval base in Bahrain, [the] Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, Al Dhafra Air Base in the UAE and the access arrangements in Oman provide the U.S. with a politically and financially sustainable military presence” in the region. Another view is that “the post-COVID-19 environment is going to be unfriendly to Saudi Arabia perhaps more than to any other leading power in the Gulf”. The Saudi failure to subdue the Houthis and to close the Yemen conflict on their terms has become a source of concern. The U.S.’s inability to subdue Iran on its terms has also become evident. Others have drawn attention to the Saudi Crown Prince’s remark in April that his country wants good relations with Iran and to the Iranian reaction of welcoming it. It is evident that policy options are being explored.

Security is the concern

The impact of these recent developments on Saudi Arabia-Iran relations needs to be assessed in this context. The effort to impart a sectarian orientation to the divide does not seem to hold. Their primary concern is security in the Gulf littoral and the security of the waterway for the transportation of their hydrocarbon exports.

In January 1987, the then U.S. Secretary of State said the Gulf has become ‘critical to the economic health of the West.’ A good part of the rest of the world can with justice be added to it.

For this to be given practical shape, its essential ingredients would need to be: freedom of access to, and outlet from, Gulf waters through the Strait of Hormuz; freedom of commercial shipping in international waters in the Persian Gulf; prevention of conflict that may impinge on the freedom of trade and shipping; freedom to all States of the Gulf littoral to exploit their hydrocarbons and other natural resources and export them; ensure conditions of peace and stability in the individual littoral States, and ensure that regional or extra-regional conditions do not impinge on any of these considerations.

Could the achievement of such an arrangement, or a part of it, be the beginning of a much desired and reassuring development? Overtime, it may address itself to bring forth answers to questions such as security for whom, by whom, against whom.

The recent pronouncements from Riyadh and Tehran do tend to suggest an inclination to be supportive of some of these suggestions. This is to be welcomed since from an Indian viewpoint the requirement is and will continue to be stability in the littoral States, freedom of navigation and safety of sea lanes.

Hamid Ansari is the former Vice President of India, 2007-2017

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