Towards Riyadh: Balance of Power between Iran and Saudi Arabia

In light of the Arab League Summit in Riyadh (3/28/07), the balance of power between Iran and Saudi Arabia should be evaluated. Will this lead to renewed regional conflict or to reconciliation and cooperation?

The Arab League Summit in Riyadh clarified the division of power in the Middle East. On one side is a Saudi-led Sunni bloc and on the other an Iranian-Shiite camp seeking to expand its influence (see: Iranian Hegemony).

Below are the main arenas in which Saudi Arabia and Iran are active:

  • Lebanon - Iran and Saudi Arabia have become the main players in the current conflict in Lebanon between Hizbullah and the Siniora government over control of the political system (see: UN Resolution 1559 and UN Resolution 1701). Recently, Saudi Arabia and Iran decided to cooperate in order to calm the Lebanese arena.

  • Syria - Since the Second Lebanon War (7/06), Syria has been sending conflicting messages: On one hand, it has made threats of war and increased involvement in Lebanon; while on the other hand, it is calling for the renewal of the political process with Israel. The implications of a renewal of the political process with Israel will likely include: the distancing of Syria from the Iranian camp leading to its reconciliation with the US and the moderate Arab states including Saudi Arabia, a demand for international concessions regarding former Lebanese PM Hariri's assassination, and an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

  • The Palestinian Authority - The Mecca Agreement and the establishment of a National Unity government occurred in the midst of Saudi and Iranian alignment and brought about the establishment of a Palestinian National Unity Government. However, it remains unclear how the clash between Fatah (identified with the Saudis) and Hamas (identified with Iran) will develop.

    While Iran tries to prevent a political solution between Israel and the Palestinians by expanding the armed struggle in the territories through the Resistance Network, the Saudis are advancing an initiative to bring about the establishment of a Palestinian State with 1967 borders.

  • Iraq - Iran is attempting to forge closer ties with the Iraqi government using a Shia militia, while Saudi Arabia is trying to protect the Sunni minority in the country. The battle is taking place on a political, military and economic level. However, in light of the joint Iranian and Saudi interests in prevent the disintegration of Iraq, the two sides agreed to participate in talks over the future of Iraq.

  • The Oil Issue - The oil weapon constitutes Saudi Arabia's leverage over Iran. In recent months, Saudi Arabia has been working to stabilize and lower the price of oil as a means to influence the Iranian economy. However, Iranian actions such as the capture of British sailors over the weekend (3/23/07) enflame the regional situation and lead to a rise in oil prices.

  • The Nuclear Issue - Iran's nuclear project derives from Iran's aspiration to achieve military deterrence, as well as to achieve regional influence and to become the leader of the Islamic camp. The project threatens Saudi Arabia's regional position as well as increases the threat of nuclear proliferation throughout the entire region.

  • US Status in the Region - Saudi Arabia is the US' main ally in the Persian Gulf, while Iran is the main opponent to US influence in the Middle East. However, the reality in Iraq and the issue of Iran's nuclear project will require the US and Iran to interact, either directly or via other states. Saudi Arabia may play a mediation role between them.

Sources

Memri, 2/14/07; full article.

Ma'an, 3/4/07; full article.

New York Times, 3/5/07; full article.

Reuters, 3/23/07; full article