Old Rivals, New Rules: Riyadh and Tehran Eye Washington’s Shifting Policies

THE TRUMP EFFECT: Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are eyeing U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in fear that his policies may disrupt their agendas.

By Camelia Entikhabifard

Years ago, much to the dismay of their strongest Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. administration led by Barack Obama decided to pursue a diplomatic channel to negotiate with Tehran.

More than Iran’s regional escapades, the West was concerned about the Persian state’s advanced nuclear program.
To curb Iran’s ambition of becoming capable of producing nuclear weapons, thereby encouraging other regional countries to enter the nuclear race, the West sanctioned Tehran in an unprecedented manner.

A decade of lagging talks focused on Iran’s nuclear file finally reached a resolution in 2015 after two years of intense negotiations between Tehran and the West.

Under the agreement, Iran is required to dismantle a large portion of its advanced nuclear facilities, in exchange for a majority of the sanctions being dropped.

This comprehensive agreement wasn’t enough for Iran’s Arab neighbors across the Gulf’s turbulent waters, Saudi Arabia in particular, which was looking at means to curb Iran’s meddling in the affairs of regional countries that the Kingdom believes should have been addressed at the talks.

Riyadh was unhappy with the nuclear deal, which it saw as an opportunity to empower Iran and expand its regional activities.

Though Donald Trump as a candidate frequently attacked the nuclear agreement, calling it “a bad deal” and promising to tear it apart once he became president—and now he is the U.S. president-elect—that didn’t please the Saudis.

While Riyadh was upset with the whole Iran nuclear agreement, oddly enough, Trump’s remark against the Iran deal didn’t please them either. Any threat in their area can damage the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state’s growing economy and booming tourism industry.

On the other hand, the Iranians don’t feel that the nuclear deal is under threat from the new U.S. administration since a U.N. resolution makes it an international agreement, which cannot be dismissed that easily.

Still, as new U.S. president-elect, Trump has the power and authority to jeopardize the deal’s implementation and/or increase the sanctions if he wishes to, but negotiation always seems to be good to serve the concerned parties’ interests.

At present, the Saudis fear not the nuclear deal, but rather whether Trump will pursue a coalition with Russia and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad against Daesh, thus legitimizing the Iranian national presence.

The West is seen opening up more to the idea of involving Tehran in an envisaged political solution for the Syrian crisis, given Iran’s military and political support to the Assad regime in Syria.

Iran’s cooperation over the crisis in Syria, however, needs a Saudi presence at the same table, given that one supports the regime and the other backs rebels in Syria. But both countries have declined to work together for the past couple of years.
Now, and considering the outcome of the U.S. elections, neither of the two are needed to cooperate with one another as the new possible policy of cooperating with Russia directly eliminates the importance of either of the two Gulf powers.

Saudi Arabia under the U.S. regional coalition, and Iran under the Russian umbrella, both may find themselves having to comply with what Washington and Moscow agree on with regards to regional conflicts.

On the other hand, Tehran and Riyadh’s regional competition is considered internal business, with the world powers not having any wish to interfere.

President-elect Trump’s plan is to build an alliance with Russia and Assad in order to defeat Daesh, basically leaving Assad in power—as many expect it—especially given that Trump has been very clear about not wanting to dismantle regimes in the Middle East nor be a part in the region’s conflicts.

This is good enough for the Iranians to improve cooperation with the new U.S. administration.

In that context, Iranian member of parliament Ali Motahari reportedly said that Trump “has a good stance on Syria and his objection to the Iran deal can even serve Iran’s interest.”

“What Trump showcased at his victory speeches as the president was different from his election campaign images.

This is a remarkable thing,” says Hamid Abu Talebi, the deputy chief of staff for political affairs for Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani.

Talebi made sure to express his views on Twitter on November 9, in a step seen as a warming up from Iran towards the new U.S. administration.

But in Saudi Arabia, the general feeling is different, as veteran politician Prince Turki bin Faisal portrayed in Washington D.C.

“U.S. President-elect Donald Trump should not scrap a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, but should take the nation to task for its ‘destabilizing activities’ in the Middle East,” the former Saudi intelligence chief and ex-ambassador to Washington and London said earlier this month.

According to Prince Turki, Trump should admonish Iran for its “very adventurous and very destabilizing activities” in the Middle East.

For the time being, both Iran and Saudi will observe the changes in Washington D.C. before adapting their policies regarding relations with the U.S. and with each other.

 

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