A case for sailing together

THROUGHOUT their contemporary history, Saudi-Iranian relations have ranged between cooperation and tension. Decision-makers in both countries now clearly realise that their ties have generally been more of an echo of external changes than an expression of national interests.

By Abdulaziz Sager

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Published: Sat 25 Jun 2005, 10:38 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:16 PM

When the US policy was based on the twin pillar of Riyadh and Teheran maintaining regional security, the ties between the two countries were characterised by an unprecedented level of cooperation and coordination. But after the Islamic revolution and the consequent animosity between Iran and the US, Teheran’s efforts were less dedicated to confronting the "Great Satan" than confronting its regional neighbours in general, and the littoral states of the Arabian Gulf in particular.

Accordingly, Teheran declared its intention to "export the Islamic revolution" which consequently led to destabilising the region through unjustified interference in the affairs of some regional countries and instigating domestic, sectarian and national contradictions. These crises were manifested most in the violent confrontations between Iranians and Saudi security forces during Haj pilgrimages.

During the Iraq-Iran War, Teheran spared no effort to condemn the Gulf Cooperation Council states and defame Saudi Arabia in particular, until Teheran and Riyadh severed ties in 1988, a move which intensified suspicion and mistrust between them.

These relations have been gradually restored, not because the two countries realised they have mutual interests, but due to a new external change in the form of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, which mandated cooperation. Riyadh and Teheran agreed that they had to confront the destabilisation caused by the occupation of Kuwait because they were the most affected parties in the region.

In spite of the positive developments in their relations during and after the occupation of Kuwait, shades of mistrust and scepticism remain. The positive signals sent to each other have not helped much because good intentions alone are not enough to establish international relations on sound and strong foundations. Even the "security agreement" signed in 2001, which was a step in the right direction for mutual cooperation, has failed to pave the way for credible and trustworthy relations. As a result, many thorny issues remain unresolved.

There is no doubt that there are some complicated issues rooted in sectarian and ideological differences, as well as divergent oil and security policies that require immediate attention. The disputes get complex with each country adopting a divergent view regarding some of the regional crises, and ending with the serious and justified concerns about Iran’s determination to develop its traditional and non-traditional defence programmes.

These thorny issues, however, are not beyond resolution. Both parties need to realise that the disputes will not disappear just by ignoring them, and that there is a strong desire to search for tangible solutions through candid negotiations, thereby fostering mutual interests.

With this is mind, it must be pointed out that some aspects of the Iranian politics in the region are not conducive to defusing tension. In fact, they give rise to doubts and concerns among the Gulf countries, reigniting memories of Iran’s negative impressions toward the region. The foremost among these is Teheran’s determination to develop its conventional and non-conventional defence programmes, which the GCC states cannot view merely as a US-EU-Iran dispute because those directly threatened by such weapons are not the Americans or the Europeans, but the GCC countries.

Due to this direct threat, the GCC states find themselves obliged to depend more on foreign forces to guarantee their national security. Thus, Iran’s policies intensify foreign military presence in the region and force the regional states into an arms race that would adversely affect regional stability, deepen mistrust and obstruct national development plans.

Iran’s attempt to exploit the current instability in Iraq to consolidate and assert its political leverage at the expense of the other parties sends wrong signals. It is not just a direct intervention in the affairs of an Arab country whose political stability and security are directly linked to the Gulf environment as whole, but it is seen as an attempt to destabilise the regional balance of power and sends clear signals that Tehran’s foreign policy is still motivated by narrow interests.

On the other hand, it is vital for the GCC states to understand and take into account Iran’s security concerns, especially after it found itself under serious foreign political pressure and besieged from all directions by the US presence in Central Asia, Afghanistan, Turkey and Iraq. There is no doubt that it is not in the interest of the GCC States to allow continued animosity between Teheran and Washington because it adversely impacts GCC-Iran relations. More than ever, the GCC is today required to make Teheran feel that it is an indispensable part of any Gulf security arrangement.

It is time for Iran and GCC states to make use of new window of opportunity to address all the pending regional issues with a constructive and responsible approach.

Amid dramatic changes that put the region in the eye of the storm, it is imperative that our leaders build bridges of confidence with each other. Gulf people, Arabs and Iranians, are in the same boat, and they cannot afford to do anything but make the Gulf waters a sea of cooperation and peace.

Abdulaziz Sager is Chairman of Gulf Research Center, Dubai

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