West Asia has a tremendous innate capacity to spring surprises despite being a highly volatile region. Of late there has been a greater interest among major regional powers to consciously tone down the rhetoric and differences and work on aligning the common areas of interest through expanding reproachment.
One of the most important developments in recent times has been the thawing of ties and reestablishment of diplomatic relations between arch-competitors Saudi Arabia – leader of the Islamic world – and Islamic Republic Iran which apart from intra-regional geopolitical and geo-economic contestations were equally confronting one another in the inter-religious Shia-Sunni divide.
They were directly and indirectly engaged in an unwinnable war in Yemen where Iran-backed Houthis continued to be a challenge for Saudis and Emiratis. But with the help of Baghdad, Muscat and Beijing they decided to bury the hatchet and are beginning to work together through incremental confidence-building measures as Tehran reopened its embassy in Riyadh after high-level interactions.
Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan again met his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, on the sidelines of a foreign ministerial BRICS summit and a ‘Friends of BRICS’ meeting in Cape Town, South Africa. Likewise, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah also met with his Iranian counterpart in Cape Town and discussed ways of driving UAE-Iran relations forward and boosting their cooperation to serve their common interests and support security, stability and prosperity in the region.
External and domestic factors also played an equally important role. Tehran has been suffering under excessive economic sanctions and the impact of the pandemic. Saudi Arabia took the lead with other challenging partners. Mohammed Bin Salman, the Crown Prince and Prime Minister lifted the blockade against Qatar and opened up channels with rivals Turkey and Syria while playing cupid between Sudanese rival factions. Tehran is also working to normalise ties with Cairo and Amman. Such rapprochement and Chinese implicit and explicit role and influence have redrawn Western interest in the region.
Visiting US Secretary of State is hoping for Riyadh and US-GCC meet to normalise ties with Tel Aviv following Abraham Accords. UK eased visas for GCC and Oman while the EU appointed a special envoy to the Middle East.
To a great extent, the changing global dynamic and perceived US withdrawal as a security guarantor with its shifting focus towards the India-Pacific theatre has forced the regional majors to look at options internally and externally. While they may be mulling over enabling the increasing footprints of China and even an embattled Russia in the region as well as India as new economic and security partners pursuant to their ’Act East “ policy, they are definitely hoping to try for a regional security architecture which can only be built if there is a convergence of interests and unremitting trust and sincerity of purpose among the major actors.
Iran has floated the idea of a Regional Naval Alliance as it tested its first hypersonic ballistic missile terming it as essential for regional security, even if directed against Israel. The Arms Control Association, a Washington, DC-based non-governmental organisation says Iran’s missile programme is largely based on North Korean and Russian designs and has benefited from Chinese assistance. Tehran in the past has been advocating for a regional security architecture including its Hormuz Peace Plan.
Iranian Naval Commander Shahram Irani claimed that “the countries of the region have realised that only cooperation with each other brings security to the area,” announcing that Iran and three other Gulf countries along with Indian and Pakistani navies will be part of this initiative. Perhaps he has just jumped the gun or is simply kite flying, as exact details are still awaited. Anyways, the US’s 5th Fleet spokesperson Cmdr Tim Hawkins said, “It defies reason that Iran, the number one cause of regional instability, claims it wants to form a naval security alliance to protect the very waters it threatens”. The 5th Fleet is based In Bahrain.
Iranians might be referring to Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar even Bahrain and Oman as China has been working hard to initiate dialogue between Tehran and GCC. It is understood that Beijing might have concurred with this proposal. There is no doubt that given the anti-piracy cooperation among various regional and extra-regional power, a matrix of cooperation exists. Moreover, most important sea lanes and choke points necessitate collaboration for avoiding supply disruptions and regional security and stability.
India has been engaged in anti-piracy campaigns in the Persian Gulf and has even escorted ships for the safety of its cargo shipping. India and Iran and the West Asian states and the region have historic and civilizational and strategic ties but the proposed Naval alliance at this stage appears at a conceptual stage hence no reaction was witnessed from New Delhi even though its most important objective remains the security and stability of the region and sea lanes of trading and communications.
It is also a fact that India is a resident naval power in the Indian Ocean region and has collaborative arrangements with regional countries in the maritime domain but being part of a structure where China and Pakistan will be manipulating seems to be far-fetched.
UAE, which has also normalised ties with Tehran and has good economic engagement with Iran, had recently opted out of the 38-member US-led maritime alliance in the Gulf. Their Foreign Ministry stated that UAE “withdrew its participation” from Combined Maritime Task Forces two months ago after an “evaluation of effective security cooperation with all partners.” Abu Dhabi was perhaps unhappy with the lack of US response to the seizure of its two ships in the strait of Hormuz during the past two months even as the US maintains that UAE remains a partner.
It is indeed an interesting development, especially in light of the Iranian Naval Alliance proposal. Conversation may have begun but the devil lies in the detail and bridging the trust deficit.
These developments may have been surely discussed by Secretary Blinken during his visit (June 6-8) to the region. His effort is to contain the fallout of its strategic regional allies into the Chinese embrace. But how will they play the game of leverage remains to be seen.
The article was first published in Deccan Herald as Saudi Arabia-Iran ties set to redefine West Asia’s geopolitical landscape on June 11, 2023.
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