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We need to ease the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran

Iran has presented its new military hardware amid typically loud statements from Ayatollah Khamenei. Among the equipment Iran has obtained recently is the S-300 missile system, from Russia, which is said to be one the Iranian cleric's best friends. Other missiles were announced, but their efficiency and scope are both very questionable.

Tehran is in the process of negotiating with Russia, China, India and Brazil to obtain the latest and most advanced military equipment, such as fighter jets, helicopters, tanks, submarines and surface warships. Iran is also working on Russia for space projects and is expected to launch its own satellite, most likely for the purpose of espionage, but Iran's rulers will insist that it is only defensive.

The tension after Saudi Arabia's execution of the Shia Imam Nimr Al-Nimr in January was not translated on the ground into a military confrontation, because Iran was not in a strong position at the time. The world is not on the verge of another missile crisis. Nevertheless, Riyadh and Tehran are at the highest level of tension between them since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Before Al-Nimr's execution, the two countries had only severed diplomatic relations with each other between 1988 and 1991. Both have maintained working relationships through their embassies, even during the rule of Ahmadinejad, which was marked by his sharp tone.

Given the lifting of UN sanctions against Iran after the nuclear deal, this is both the best and worst time for mediation between Riyadh and Tehran. While patriotic feelings are high in Iran, a sense of caution is at an all-time high in the Saudi camp. Only optimists expect any great improvement in the near future.

Pragmatism calls for an urgent number of measures to build confidence and avoid an all-out war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The first is Riyadh's suggestion to Tehran in March to form a joint security committee to look into issues of common concern. While Iran did not completely reject the idea, events in Syria and Yemen have hindered serious interaction on both sides. Establishing such a committee may provide a forum for bilateral partnership to deal with thorny issues.

They could also give diplomacy a chance. The leaders in both capitals must exercise strong self-discipline when using unofficial communications to convey messages. Until now, social media and news websites have been used frequently to make threats and offend leaders and those with different sectarian beliefs.

In addition, both countries need at least one channel of communication, an official hotline, in order to avoid an accidental war. By doing so, no individual attack by a rebellious army officer, naval commander or fighter pilot would be considered an attack by the other country. Furthermore, there should be a moratorium on executing each other's citizens, no matter when they were convicted.

Another measure that could be taken is to allow the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to play a role by forming a foreign ministers' committee to negotiate in a neutral country, such as Switzerland, Norway or Germany, for example. Finally, both countries could use the officials who make the Iranian pilgrims' Hajj arrangements as a conduit to begin low-level diplomatic discussions. It is clear that large-scale and higher level diplomatic relations will not be established at the moment.

Even after such measures are taken, there could still be a risk of provocations or escalatory actions or statements. It seems that both Saudi Arabia and Iran lack the main components to engage in a direct war, so they are engaged in proxy wars in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. While the alliance led by Saudi Arabia is fighting the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, Iran has used modern means to deliver sophisticated military equipment to its agents in the Arabian Peninsula; and while Saudi military aircraft are stationed in Turkey, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Shia mercenaries are fighting on behalf of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.

The situation may become worse if the fighting in Yemen does not end or if the conflicting parties are unable to at least reach a stalemate. In case of conflict, both sides remain weak, given the fact that neither can act arbitrarily nor end the conflict without making an identical or outrageous response to some extent. Hence, mutual reactions of an eye for an eye variety are deterring both sides from using military force. In addition, their economic interests would be served if the tension between the two is alleviated. While Iran is no longer suffering from the sanctions imposed on it due to its nuclear programme, Riyadh is facing a dangerous financial deficit due to the over-production of oil in the global market. As such, neither can bear the consequences of a cold war, as it may ultimately have damaging effects on their domestic status quo.

 

Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, 28 April 2016

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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