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The race for influence in West Asia

Atul Aneja

The National Intelligence Estimate’s findings on Iran may mark the beginning of Washington’s post-Cold War decline in West Asia.

The full impact of the observations in the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report — produced collectively by Washington’s numerous intelligence agencies — on the Iranian nuclear programme is still unfolding. However, it is evident that after the release of the report, according to which Iran has not had a nuclear weapons programme since 2003, power equations in the world’s oil heartland are shifting dramatically.

Iran, fourth largest producer of oil, and Saudi Arabia, global leader, are rapidly consolidating their political influence in the region. The other countries that are also enhancing their geostrategic profile in West Asia’s energy bastion include Russia and China. After voting twice against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency — apparently at Washington’s behest — India also appears to be making a belated attempt at mending fences with Tehran. For the first time after World War II, the United States is struggling to retain its substantial politico-military influence in the region.

Iran and Saudi Arabia, along with Iraq and the rest of the Persian Gulf states — Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman — hold the largest reserves of oil in the world. Any change in the international pecking order in this region, therefore, is bound to have a profound impact on the world’s economy and politics.

The NIE’s findings have already unhinged the case for war against Tehran. Its conclusion that Iran ceased its weapons programme in 2003 implies that Tehran does not pose a nuclear threat to anyone in the near future. The findings have also weakened the case for tightening sanctions.

The NIE’s clean chit appears to have raised by several notches the relatively low-key interaction between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both countries exercise enormous influence in their constituencies in the region. Saudi Arabia is now widely recognised as the de facto leader of the Arab world. It has taken the lead in trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute. The 22-nation Arab League has already adopted the plan of the Saudi monarch, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, to resolve the Israel-Palestine dispute. Riyadh also exercises considerable clout because of the key role it can play in the global oil markets. Besides, Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam and two of the holiest shrines revered by Muslims the world over are in the Kingdom. The footprint of Saudi influence is, therefore, seen far and wide.

There have been significant changes in the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia, known for long as a faithful U.S. ally, after King Abdullah’s accession in 2005. The new monarch adopted a “look east” policy, which became evident when he chose India, Malaysia and China for his first overseas visit. Stepping out of line from the Washington-led peace process on Palestine, King Abdullah engaged both the Fatah and rival Hamas on its home turf in order to persuade them to form a national unity government. He met with some success when the factions agreed in Makkah to accept a political compromise despite Washington’s strong opposition to the deal.

Despite the setback the initiative suffered when bitter street battles broke out in Gaza and led to the virtual partition of Palestinian territories between the Fatah and Hamas, the Saudi monarch has not given up. Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal recently revisited Saudi Arabia and met King Abdullah. Efforts are being made to revive talks between Hamas and the Fatah, in order to advance the Saudi Arbia-initiated Makkah peace process.

Iran, on the other hand, exercises unique influence, especially among the region’s Shia population. Its substantial influence in Bahrain, a country with a majority Shia population and Sunni leadership, is well known. Iran is also a player in oil-rich Kuwait. Besides, ties between Iran and the Hizbollah in Lebanon are extremely close. The Hizbollah’s profile in Beirut as well as the region rose dramatically after it blunted the Israeli attack on Lebanon in August 2006.

Saudi Arabia and Iran began to work closely together after sectarian violence in Iraq inflamed the region. Lebanon became the first nation in which both countries decided to coordinate their activities in order to heal its growing sectarian and religious divide. While the Iranians were well positioned to influence the Shias under the Amal and Hizbollah movements, the Saudis could exercise clout over the wealthy Sunni community, which had made considerable investments in Saudi Arabia and vice versa. The interaction proved fruitful and now helped internal factions narrow down their differences over a consensus candidate for the vacant Lebanese Presidency.

Tehran and Riyadh also worked with some success in Iraq, where the Saudi intelligence could exercise its influence over some of the Al Qaeda tribal groups. Iranian influence among Iraqis, especially the Shias and Kurds, is well recognised.

Resilience evident

The resilience of the Saudi-Iranian relationship became evident soon after the Annapolis conference held on November 27, 2007. Despite the stated American efforts to build an Arab front against Iran at the conference, the events on the following days showed that forces negating Washington’s exhortations gained the upper hand. Just after the conference, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council took the dramatic step of inviting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to its annual summit in Doha. King Abdullah led him by the hand to the conference — a rare gesture of solidarity between the two regional heavyweights.

The conference began the very day the NIE report was released. The Saudis wasted no time in taking advantage of its findings. At the conference, Mr. Ahmadinejad spoke of evolving a collective security arrangement with Iran’s neighbours. The implication was obvious. On an Arab platform, Iran was saying it wanted to step inside the region with its neighbours, and, implicitly, marginalise the presence of American military forces, which have played a preponderant role in the oil rich region for the past few decades.

Besides, the Iranian leader invited Gulf businessmen to invest in his country, in areas that included real estate. Iranian businessmen have made substantial investments in Dubai and reside in the Emirate in large numbers. A nucleus which can carry out investments in Iran, therefore, already has a significant presence in the Gulf, especially Dubai.

Keeping up the high momentum in their relationship, King Abdullah and President Ahmadinejad met again in Makkah during the Haj. Commenting on the visit, Iran’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Hosseini, insightfully said: “Iran and Saudi Arabia, as two leading countries in the region and in the Islamic world, shoulder a heavy responsibility. The two countries have reached a mutual understanding not to limit their ties exclusively to bilateral issues.”

Apart from the growing regional assertion by Saudi Arabia and Iran, Russia has moved in swiftly after the release of the NIE report. Less than 24 hours of its publication, Moscow announced that it was dispatching the first consignment of nuclear fuel for Iran’s Bushehr atomic power plant. Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, rejected calls for tougher economic sanctions on Iran in the light of fresh U.S. intelligence data. Besides, the Russians began military exercises in the Mediterranean, deploying 11 ships including an aircraft carrier with 47 planes on board. The Russian navy is reportedly using the Syrian port of Tartus as a supply base for its ships operating in the Mediterranean.

China has also made further inroads into Iran after the release of the NIE report. Despite the U.S. insistence on sanctions, the China Petrochemical Corporation on December 10 signed a $2-billion deal with Iran to develop its Yadavaran oilfield. Encouraged by the NIE findings, the Iranians are now seeking Japanese investments to develop their oil sector.

India, too, has sought to reengage Iran. Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon visited Tehran in mid-December. He was quoted as saying there that India “is interested in establishing a strategic partnership with Iran in the areas of energy, transport, and security.”

However, India’s non-participation in the recent meetings on the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project and the perception of its growing proximity to the U.S. have not gone down well with Iran. At his meeting with Mr. Menon, Iran Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, in fact, noted that the “low level” of ties between the two great regional countries over the past two years was “lamentable.” He added: “We should not let any foreign powers to harm the existing ties between the two countries.”

Given the growing assertion of Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the intention of Russia and China to enhance their profile in the region, the release of the NIE report may well mark the beginning of Washington’s post-Cold War decline in West Asia.

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