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CWA # 145, 9 July 2019

Iran, US and the Nuclear Deal
Amidst the US-Iran standoff, Saudi Arabia should be cautious

  Lakshmi V Menon

Saudi Arabia must be cautious as an escalation would prove costly, and Riyadh with its infrastructural investments and other commitments cannot afford a war. The kingdom must prioritize national interests over Washington's interests. Else, Saudi Arabia will be the price the US pays for the war with Iran.

Despite high-level bilateral visits, Riyadh has little say in the unfolding tensions between Iran and the US. Riyadh's current all-or-nothing Iran-policy is congruent with Trump's "maximum pressure" approach. 

However, Saudi with little leverage stands to lose more from the conflict than the US. With a fickle President such as Trump, a torchbearer of the "America First" agenda and a believer of the idea that the Gulf countries need to "reimburse" for the decades of protection from America, Saudi Arabia cannot expect the US's undeterred security and military backing in case of a war.

Saudi interests over US interests

Saudi Arabia will have to bear the brunt of an Iran-US fallout and Tehran's "maximum resistance" retaliation. The Saudi oil tanker attacks and increasing Iranian-backed Houthi rebel attacks on Saudi territory are not isolated events. Nor is it a mere coincidence. These are the limited Iranian responses to US sanctions which are directly jeopardizing Saudi's security but remains mere "attacks on an ally" for Washington. 

Inadequate engagement of the US in case of a war and Trump's perspective of allies' security being collateral damage will prove dangerous for Saudi. Instead of cheering the bulldozing of Tehran, now is the time for Riyadh to revisit their Iran policy. Riyadh must craft a pragmatic and incremental policy towards Iran as a US-Iran war would be at Saudi's expense. If Saudi's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman does not want war as he claims, then reevaluating strategies is crucial. 

What can Riyadh do?

Iranian Foreign minister Javad Zarif's "no-aggression pact" could be a stepping stone. A Saudi initiative in favour of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's statement to have a Washington-Tehran dialogue "with no pre-conditions" will give Riyadh greater leverage in future negotiations. Saudi could also resolve struggles within OPEC that have led to Iran accusing Russia and Saudi of dominating the cartel. Such an economic consideration would considerably help Tehran to overcome the recession, and go a long way in improving bilateral relations and maintaining regional stability.

A direct dialogue between Iran and Saudi would make MBS' claims of not wanting a war more credible. Distancing from the military escalation could boost the corroding image of Saudi Arabia, as the state has recently been muddled in accusations of human rights violations. Regional countries would also welcome an incremental, pragmatic and realistic approach. Furthermore, it could aid a safe Saudi exit from the Yemen War.

Trump administration's moves have only increased insecurities of Iran that justify nuclear proliferation and increasing their enriched uranium and heavy water stockpiles. Riyadh like the current signatories of the JCPOA must appraise the agreement as to the first step to having a sustainable engagement with Iran.

Will there be a Saudi-Iran Rapprochement?

Possibility of such a rapprochement lies on various factors. Primarily, a collective political will. Other elements such as domestic politics, civil conflicts, oil politics, hardliners on both sides and regional politics make the realization of a truce challenging. Iran's elite Regional Guard Corps' assertive regional outlook coupled with cross-cutting dynastic and succession politics in Saudi Arabia has time and again driven the countries away from peace. Decisive regional political actions are forgone for domestic political mileage. The riddle requires minds of determined revolutionary leaders. Further, if Riyadh wants a sustainable solution and viable peace with Iran, then Washington must gain significantly from the rapprochement.

Such a truce is not unlikely and is probably the best option for Riyadh in the current scenario of US-Iran escalations. In the past, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran have attempted incremental approaches. Renewing those talks would save Riyadh from the vicious cycle it would otherwise find itself in. On a broader perspective, the GCC countries and OPEC countries would benefit from regional stability and a less conflictual region. 

Saudi Arabia must be cautious as an escalation would prove costly, and Riyadh with its infrastructural investments and other commitments cannot afford a war. The kingdom must prioritize national interests over Washington's interests. Else, Saudi Arabia will be the price the US pays for the war with Iran.

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