A zone of frenemies: untangling Middle East relations

The bitter rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran can be seen played out across the Middle East, from the rise of Islamic State to the assault against the Houthis in Yemen. Amin Saikal writes about what this means for the US as it attempts to find a coherent policy.

The Middle East continues to be a zone of frenemies. The latest development is the collective military assault by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and a number of its Arab allies against the Houthis as an allegedly Iranian-backed terrorist group in Yemen.

This comes hot on the heels of these countries’ refusal to assist the US-led air campaign with ground forces against ‘Islamic State’ (IS) in Iraq.

Why against the Houthis, but not IS?

The answer lies in the Saudi-Iranian geopolitical driven sectarian rivalries, and America’s attempts to maintain its de facto alliance with Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies, negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran, and fight IS with as much regional support as possible.

The Houthis are followers of Shi’a Islam and claim representation on behalf of 45 per cent of the Yemeni population. As such, they have a sectarian affiliation with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Tehran has been accused of materially supporting the Houthis rebellion, which since last September has taken over the capital Sana. The Houthis have successfully fought the Saudi-backed government of president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who has fled the capital, as well as the Sunni Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Saudis and their partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Egypt want to get rid of the Houthis and reinstall Hadi’s leadership. The Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has condemned the Saudi-led assault as a “genocide” and called for its end. However, the United States has backed the Saudi-led military campaign to Tehran’s annoyance.

In contrast, Saudi Arabia and its allies have only made a symbolic contribution to the US-led Western air campaign against IS. Yet, clearly what could help this campaign to roll back IS is a regional ground force to assist the Iraqi military.

Two reasons account for why this has not occurred. First, IS is an extremist Sunni, anti-Shia entity, whose ideology is rooted in the Saudi brand of Wahabi/Salafi Islam. IS, which established itself over large swathes of Iraqi and Syrian territories last June, was initially a beneficiary of funds coming from Saudi Arabia and some of its oil-rich GCC partners. These countries were motivated by the consideration that Iran had gained too much influence in Iraq, which had traditionally been identified with the Arab world, and Syria, where Iranian aid has sustained Bashar al-Assad’s government as Iran’s only Arab strategic partner, and Lebanon, in which the Iranian-backed Hezbollah has reigned supreme in support of Iran’s wider regional interests.

This means that whilst Saudi Arabia and its allies would like to see IS contained, they do not find it in their strategic interests to see it eliminated as an anti-Iranian and anti-Syrian government force. The second reason is that the Iraqi government is dominated by the Shi’as, who form a majority of the Iraqi population, and cannot afford to offend Tehran by being receptive to an Arab force to fight IS on its soil.

Paradoxically, whilst opposed to IS and helping the Iraqi and Kurdish forces, as well as cooperating informally with the US and its Western allies in combating IS, Tehran shares the Arab countries’ step-back approach to IS, although for different reasons.

Iran views IS as an extension of Saudi Salafism, and does not mind to see its continuation in a symbolic form for a while to discredit the Saudi brand of Islam and thus counter the Saudi opposition to Iran. Meanwhile, to shore up its domestic and regional position, the Iranian regime, with moderate/reformist Hassan Rouhani in the presidency, wants a breakthrough in its long-standing hostilities with the United States.

In response, US president Barack Obama has found diplomacy as the best means to settle the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program and to come to terms with Tehran. Yet, like the Iranian leadership, Obama faces his internal and regional detractors, who do not view a possible normalisation of US-Iranian relations to be in their strategic interests. Israel has campaigned viciously against it, and Saudi Arabia and its regional allies have voiced serious apprehension about it. For Obama to overcome this opposition, he has engaged in a regional balancing act. He has supported the Saudi-led military action against the Houthis and has blamed Iran for Yemen’s woes (although Yemen’s strife stems largely from internal factors) and assured Israel of America’s unwavering commitment to it.

What may emerge from all this is unpredictable. But one thing is sure. Irrespective of whether or not there will be a US-Iranian rapprochement, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry may continue to be a main cause of regional volatility, unless the two sides agree to a summit to settle their differences peacefully through dialogue and understanding.

As for the United States, it presently lacks a clear and coherent policy in dealing with a region riven by contradictions and paradoxes. It appears to be shuttling between various forces to find a niche of determining influence in the region. However, if there is a major improvement in its relations with Iran, that could help it to play a meaningful role in resolving some of the regional issues, ranging from Iraqi to Yemeni conflicts, that at least partly underpin the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor of Political Science, public policy fellow and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University, and author of Iran at the Crossroads (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015, forthcoming).