The constant in Middle Eastern politics is their inconsistancy. Alliances are made and broken regularly. Who would have imagined five years ago that Iran and Saudi Arabia could be discussing the possibility of a defence pact? That may be premature, but the fact the issue was Mohammed Khatami’s eight-day tour of Syria, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which ended on May 19, reflects considerable changes in the geo-political alignments in the region.
There is, however, method in these apparently unlikely developments. Iran and Saudi Arabia are at opposite ideological poles. Iran is an Islamic revolutionary state established 20 years ago after a brutal struggle in which an estimated 80,000 people were martyred by the Shah’s US-backed regime. The people of Iran despise the ‘Great Satan’, as Imam Khomeini called the US. The US’s behaviour towards Muslims worldwide make this an understatement.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is a tribal monarchy dominated by a single family which owes its existence to British intrigue. The family was placed in power as reward for helping the west destroy the Uthmaniyyah Khilafah. Today, it is closely aligned with the US; Riyadh seldom does anything without permission from Washington. Thousands of American troops occupy the Arabian Peninsula, in complete disregard of the Prophet’s command forbidding their presence there.
This, however, is the key: Iran and the Arab states are equally concerned about the US; Iran because it is a powerful, dangerous and unpredictable enemy, the Arabs because it is a powerful, dangerous, unpredictable and unreliable friend.
Of course, relations between the Arab states and Islamic Iran have been strained ever since the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The tribal monarchies feared that revolutionary Islamic ideas would sweep them away as well. Encouraged by the US, virtually all the Arab regimes backed and financed Saddam Husain’s eight-year war against Iran (September 1980-August 1988). Saudi Arabia was in the forefront of this support, closely followed by Kuwait. Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990-91 changed all that.
Suddenly, the Arab monarchies’ mongrel turned on them, bringing the hand of their common master down very hard. The US may be slapping Iraq, but the other Arab states and feeling the sting too. Despite the shock of Saddam’s adventure into Kuwait, it took the Arab regimes considerable time to readjust their focus and policies. They continue to rely on the west for survival but have begun to take tentative steps to improve relations with their eastern neighbour, whose Islamic government, they realise, cannot be wished away.
From the Arab point of view, there are two major regional powers in the Middle East today ï the US/Israel axis, and Iran. It is difficult to say which the Arab governments fear the more -- Zionist Israel’s arrogance and greed, or Islamic Iran’s moral standing and leadership. Ironically, their response to this dilemma is to try to improve relations with Tel Aviv and Tehran at the same time.
This attitude of looking both ways will not work. The election of the much-touted ‘moderate’, Ehud Barak, as Israeli prime minister, is likely to lead to renewed efforts by the US to rally its client Arab regimes behind the so-called Middle East ‘peace process’. Most of them are likely to fall in line.
Dealings between Iran and the other Persian Gulf states are charecterised therefore by considerable mistrust. Nonetheless, there are areas of common interest too. A major thrust of Iranian policy has been to seek the removal of foreign forces from the region or, failing that, to at least minimise the likelihood of their being used against Iran. The presence of some 50 US ships in the Persian Gulf, and tens of thousands of troops in Saudi, Bahraini and other bases, are a major source of instability.
But the US is the effectively the master of the Arab rulers that Khatami visited. The Arabs may hate the US reins, and be interested in improving ties with Iran in order to minimise the risk of instability in the region, which would also rock their seats. But at the end of the day, they know which side their bread is buttered, and will not risk alienating Washington.
President Khatami’s visit to Riyadh and Doha (Qatar) has helped create a better environment but the ideological differences between the parties are unbridgeable. Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal described president Khatami’s talks with king Fahd on May 16 as ‘excellent’ but added that Iran must take further confidence-building measures.
Ideological issues apart, there are a number of other issues outstanding. One is the dispute about three small islands in the Persian Gulf which are ruled by Iran but which the UAE claims. The roots of their dispute can be traced, like much else in the region, essentially to British intrigue. As the colonial power, Britain deliberately fragmented the region. The consequences of this are still being suffered by the people.
There is also the question of Hajj, how it is to be performed and who should decide the number of pilgrims. The Saudi regime has appointed itself the sole arbiter of this crucial Islamic obligation. It insists on the performance of a ritualistic Hajj, emptied of all significance by denying divine commands as stipulated in the noble Qur’an. In 1987, Saudi forces massacred more than 400 hujjaj, most of them Iranian, during a bara’a min al-mushrikeen (dissociation from the mushrikeen) rally in Makkah. A German general, Ulrich Wegener, was brought in especially to plan this massacre in Islam’s holiest city and sanctuary. It is not yet clear whether any agreement on the question of Hajj was reached during Khatami’s recent tour.
But beyond differences, there are also numerous areas of common interest. The economic front is one. Oil prices continue to be a crucial determining factor for all producers. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain all are dependent on oil revenues for much of their development. In March, Iran and Saudi Arabia were able to agree on production quotas in order to stabilise oil prices. This has been quite successful.
Tehran is also keen to promote regional trade. At present, the bulk of their products are supplied by the west and Japan. A regional economic grouping will bring enormous benefits to all countries and also enable them to reduce their defence expenditure. According to Hisham al-Sherif, of the Cairo-based IT Investments, Arab regimes spend about US$56 billion annually on defence. This is a total waste since most of this equipment cannot be used by the ill-trained armies of these regimes. In fact, this money is effectively extorted from them by western governments to finance their pursuit of their own interests.
Historically, Iran has enjoyed fairly good relations with the three southern Gulf States ï Oman, the UAE and Qatar. The three northern States ï Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait ï have been more hostile. The three islands’ dispute apart, which has been given unneccesary prominence in recent months, Iran has always enjoyed good relations with the UAE, especially Dubai, which is an important trading partner as well as a place of employment for many Iranian wrokers. Relations with Kuwait have also improved dramatically, especially since Iraq’s disastrous invasion and Tehran’s sensible policy vis-a-vis the entire crisis.
Early last year, during his Saudi visit, when former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani visited the 15-mile causeway linking eastern Saudi Arabia with Bahrain, the amir of the shaikhdom came over and invited the Iranian visitor to his country as well. The gesture did much to ease tensions. The shaikhdom is in the throes of an uprising and accusations have been traded back and forth.
But it is Qatar that has perhaps taken the greatest strides in opening up relations with Tehran. Radical changes have been instituted within the tiny Gulf State since the current amir took over from his father in 1996. He has opened up the media, especially television, to free discussion on major issues affecting Muslims. The result has been excellent.
Iran’s main interests, in the short term, must be to improve its relations with the regimes whose cooperation the US will need if it is to use its forces in the region against Iran. The better Iran’s relations with the Arab states are, the harder it will be for the US to manipulate them. Good relations will also make it posssible for Iran to cultivate goodwill among the Arab masses. It is less likely that president Khatami’s visit will pave the way for the removal of foreign forces from the region, or even a reduction in their numbers. That would require a major breakthrough.
In the long run, however, the regional geo-political situation will remain difficult for Iran while external powers are able to pull Arab strings. And changing the client-master relationship these shaikhdoms have with the US seems a forlorn hope. In a world dominated by the US, Islamic Iran has no option but to accept its position as a state apart.
Muslimedia: June 1-15, 1999