Saudi Arabia’s explosive rivalry with Shia Iran

The last thing the Middle East needs is more pyrotechnics. That, unfortunately is what the crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, is providing by overreaching in his efforts to counter Iranian influence and by singling out Lebanon as the new theatre for escalating sectarian rivalry. Shia Iran’s expansionary agenda, and use of proxies including Lebanon’s Hizbollah to pursue it, is highly destabilising. The solution, however, is not for Saudi Arabia to act more like Iran. Nor is it likely that the kingdom would come out on top in a greater regional conflagration. Riyadh is already struggling to contain the fallout from other proxy wars. Saudi forces are bogged down in a catastrophic conflict in Yemen, where they have yet to defeat a ragtag army of Houthi rebels that Iran and its allies lend support to. Saudi backing for various Syrian rebel groups has been equally ineffectual. Iran has instead emerged in the ascendancy both in Syria and in Iraq, where Shia militias trained by the Revolutionary Guards are steadily sweeping into territory once controlled by Isis. Meanwhile, the crown prince’s attempt to force the maverick emirate of Qatar into submitting to its political line with a commercial blockade has unsettled the investment climate in the Gulf, but it has not forced a change of behaviour in Doha. Dragging Lebanon’s mosaic of Christian and Muslim sects into this power struggle is potentially explosive. The bizarre resignation last week in Riyadh of Saad al-Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, seemingly at the behest of the Saudi Sagovernment, appears symptomatic of over-reach. Iranian and Saudi proxies have been uneasily coexisting in Lebanon, sparing the country spillover from the civil war next door in Syria. It is true that Hizbollah, the militant group backed by Iran, has become too powerful. But it is hubristic to assume that it can be eliminated — even with the help of the US and Israel. For now, the Lebanese appear unusually united in seeing Mr Hariri’s stay in Riyadh as an act of hostage taking and an affront to their sovereignty. If indeed the prime minister is being held in the Saudi capital against his will, they would not be wrong. Yet it is not in Saudi Arabia’s interest for the stand-off with Iran to escalate into a more direct confrontation that it would be unlikely to win. Nor is it in Tehran’s. The Iranian regime is busy consolidating the influencArabiae it has gained across the region as a consequence of its intervention in recent wars. But Tehran has an interest in treading carefully to prevent the 2015 nuclear agreement — agreed with major world powers — from unravelling at the behest of President Donald Trump. It should also be keen to protect the economic gains the country has reaped as a result of the lifting of some international sanctions. Unfortunately, the US president has encouraged Saudi Arabia to play a more assertive role. Reversing a more even-handed policy adopted by the Obama administration as it sought to agree the nuclear deal with Tehran, Mr Trump has aligned himself squarely with the Sunni Gulf states and announced a more hawkish policy towards Iran. A better friend of the kingdom would instead be counselling caution. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have interests to protect in the region. Mutual recognition of these through a process of dialogue would help to defuse the current tensions in the wider interest of peace. Too many wars are raging in the Middle East. A new conflict must be prevented.



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