GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Title of Paper:
The impact of the Iranian nuclear deal in the Iran-Saudi relations
Paper Proposal Text :
The negotiation Iran-P5+1 started a new phase in the Gulf international relations in November 2013, when for the first time since 1979 a direct communication channel was opened between the Iranian and American presidents. The negotiation evolved positively and fast since then, allowing the signature of the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” on July 14th 2015. The agreement reached showed the Iranian commitment towards the international requests on guarantees and transparency on its nuclear enrichment program.

While this positive engagement is allowing sanctions against Iran to be released, increasing the bilateral confidence building measures between Iran and the P5+1, at the regional level the impact has not been as positive as expected. The official and unofficial statements from GCC states authorities demonstrated that far from enhancing the stability and safety of the Gulf region the nuclear deal would create more instability and even wars. The threat perception in the neighboring GCC countries increased as well, being Saudi Arabia the most worried about the regional influence Iran will achieve through this nuclear settlement, and how this influence would be used in detriment to the Saudi kingdom. Some scholars also suggested that the main consequence of the deal is the reformulation of the alliances of the US in the region, shifting the long term strategic link with Saudi Arabia to Iran, something which does not seem to be the case according to this paper.

The negative reception of the recent nuclear deal by some regional actors, and moreover, the huge pressure exerted on Obama administration in order to prevent the deal to be signed, showed that the perspective of a “normalized” Iran with nuclear energy and much more influence, is something that states such as Israel and Saudi Arabia would never let it happen. This concern was also evident in the Gulf Cooperation Council summit held in Doha on 7th December 2014, when the six states decided to create a joint naval force to protect the Gulf waters, demonstrating their concern regarding Iran becoming a nuclear power and regional hegemon.

On the same page, the ‘Decisive Storm’ Saudi-led military operation in Yemen to reinstall President Abu Mansour Hadi and expel the Houthi rebels and their ally, the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, from the capital Sana, can be understood as a direct action aimed to prevent Iran for establishing a friendly government in the Saudi backyard. In this sense, it was not a coincidence that the airstrikes started while Iran delegation was in Switzerland negotiating the JCPOA with the P5+1 representatives. The pressure coming from the Saudi government and other regional allies was evident, regardless the arguably actual Iranian presence or even influence over the developments in Yemen.

Apart from that, the same Turki al Faisal announced the beginning of a regional nuclear race, something that seems to started so far. Saudi Arabia started official contacts with Pakistan to purchase nuclear technology in May 2015, and in June they signed an agreement of nuclear technology development with Russia. At the same time, Saudi authorities mentioned their intention to develop a military nuclear program within a decade. In this regards, United Arab Emirates had already signed nuclear cooperation agreements with France in 2008, with the aim of finishing a power plant by 2017.

The Russian direct involvement in the Syrian conflict is another element that is necessary to bear in mind in order to assess on the regional implications of the nuclear deal. More than ever before, an axis Moscow-Tehran-Damascus is creating uncertainty and concern between the Iranian neighbors, mainly the GCC states. But it also seems that the threat represented by ISIS in Syria and Iraq since the Summer 2014 is not considered as equally as it is considered the Iranian threat. Maybe this is the reason why, in spite of an outspoken support to the alliance against ISIS that the US is leading in Iraq and Syria, the conflict has not evolved in a positive way. On the other hand, the Yemeni conflict seems to become a favorable scenario to Saudi Arabia as well as UAE and some other GCC states. Simply, the threat represented by a Shia ally of Iran is considered by the GCC states much more problematic than ISIS or Al Qaeda.

The Saudi led intervention in Yemen, as well as the possible direct intervention in Syria, will be analized in this paper as part of this assertive strategy to reaffirm is condition and to contain the expansion of its regional rival, Iran. The Saudi-Iranian diplomatic rift, following the execution of the Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al Nimr and the attack of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashad, will be analyzed in order to understand whether these two actions were consciously perpetrated in order to provoke the reaction of the other and to force the rest of the GCC, Arab and Muslim states to take sides in this Iranian-Saudi rivalry.

This paper will also asses on the current Iran-Saudi Arabia balance of power and bilateral relations. It will explore to what extent the current situation represents a new strategic framework in the region in which Iran is replacing Saudi Arabia as the main game changer, forcing Saudi Arabia to implement a more assertive/defensive foreign policy in order to reaffirm its condition of a regional power, by intervening militarily in regional conflicts for the first time in its history.

One of the provisional conclusions of the paper is that even though Iran would benefit from the deal in terms of “normalization” of its relations with the US and the EU, which may imply an improving in the economic situation of the country due to the release of sanctions, the deal does not represent any change in the strategic alliances, moreover having in mind that the Russian involvement in Syria seems to have reinstall the cold war between “East” and “West”, and that all the regional actors on the “West” seem to be the same as usual. US-KSA strategic alliance will remain in place, with Iran still under political sanctions from the US regarding human rights and terrorism issues, and it is perceived to be aligned with Russia in the regional confrontation.