Iran Maintains the Upper Hand in a Regional Competition

4 MINS READDec 9, 2014 | 00:36 GMT
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Despite losses in Syria, Iran's net strategic position remains better than that of its main rival, Saudi Arabia. The key reason is that Shiite-majority Iraq remains well within the Iranian orbit, while Saudi Arabia faces great obstacles in its efforts to establish a foothold in mostly Sunni Syria. Riyadh's efforts to punch a hole in Iran's sphere of influence on Iran's western flank are unlikely to come to fruition in the foreseeable future.

After meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, in Tehran, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Jaafari expressed appreciation for the "positive attitude" of the Gulf Cooperation Council states toward Baghdad. Jaafari welcomed the Sunni Arab-dominated council's support for Iraq in the fight against the transnational jihadist movement calling itself the Islamic State. Baghdad's top diplomat also disclosed that Iraq had received weapons supplied by some Gulf Cooperation Council member states.

Not too long ago, the Saudi-led Arab alliance deeply opposed Iraq's government, which is pro-Iranian and controlled by Shiites. In fact, the Saudi kingdom and its Gulf allies actually supported Sunni militias fighting Baghdad as a means of countering Iran and its Iraqi Shiite allies. However, that changed when the Islamic State — taking advantage of the sectarian struggle in Iraq and Syria — emerged as a larger threat to Saudi Arabia and the region's Sunni Arab states.

The Islamic State forced the Saudis' and Gulf states' hand so that they had to prioritize fighting the jihadist group in both Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, there is an international consensus that the country's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish stakeholders must come together to create a bulwark against the transnational jihadist movement. This would explain why Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal accepted an invitation to visit Baghdad — something that was unthinkable until fairly recently.

The Gulf states have cut their losses concerning Iraq. They know that the country, which was for the longest time a buffer against Iran, is not going to return to the Sunni Arab fold anytime soon. Thus, their strategy is to make the best of the situation by supporting the country's Sunnis and working with the Shiite-led government on a Pan-Arab level.

That said, the Gulf states are throwing as much support as they can behind efforts to topple the pro-Iranian government in neighboring Syria, where they hope the Sunnis, because of their demographic majority, will dominate a post-al Assad political system. Unlike the international struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq, the utter lack of consensus on a political framework under which all Syrian factions can come together and combat the transnational jihadist force is undermining efforts in Syria. The problem is not just that Syria is a proxy battleground for the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, but also that the Sunni camp is bitterly divided.

Key here is the Saudi rivalry with Qatar and the divergence in Saudi and Turkish interests — not to mention the alignment of the Turks and Qataris. All of this serves the interests of the Islamic State and strengthens Iran's position by weakening the international desire for regime change in Damascus. In essence, this means that the Saudis are unlikely to dominate Syria the way Iran dominates Iraq.

Well aware of this strategic imbalance, the Saudi and Gulf goal is to have some semblance of a Sunni-led order that can serve as a buffer against the Iranian and Shiite dominion in the northern rim of the Middle East. It should be noted that the buffer the Saudis and Gulf states once had — in the form of Baathist Iraq — has been forced westward into rebel-held Syrian territories. More important, this buffer is weak and tenuous because it is situated only in a part of Syria while the Alawite-dominated government is still in place to the west of the rebel-held areas.

Meanwhile, the Iranian position is secure in Lebanon, where factions opposing the Iranian bloc have more fear of jihadists than hatred for the al Assad government. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. Thus, the Saudi efforts to create a hole in Iran's sphere of influence are unlikely to succeed.

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