Iran sanctions and Saudi ambitions
By Brij Khindaria
A window of opportunity is closing for Saudi Arabia with the official lifting of the main United Nations sanctions against Iran.
Tehran was rewarded today for almost giving up its nuclear programs that could have resulted in indigenous nuclear weapons, but the Saudis face a bigger loss.
The start to Iran’s rehabilitation begins the end of Saudi ambitions to be the Middle East’s military hegemon and chief political and theological protector of all the world’s Muslims.
The world sees recent Iranian actions to dismantle its nuclear programs as a hopeful step towards Tehran’s renunciation of nuclear weapons but the Saudis see sinister portents.
They see a trend towards longer-term American and European acceptance of Shia Muslim theocracy in Iran.
The overt hostility that marked Western relations with Iran after the 1979 revolution and Tehran’s subsequent diplomatic isolation opened a historic opportunity for Saudi Arabia to be more than a desert kingdom best known for oil and the sacred sites of Mecca and Medina.
But it is still chasing short-sighted goals out of synchrony with a globalizing world community.
Its ambition of being the region’s military hegemon is misplaced because almost all of its military strength depends on help from the Pentagon and Washington. It has almost no staying power of its own.
For instance, Saudi Arabia is struggling grievously in Yemen despite extensive American supplies of weapons, intelligence and logistics.
The financial costs may soon be too high to bear because of increasing budget problems and attempts to recruit soldiers from a close Sunni Muslim ally Pakistan have failed so far.
Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself went to Islamabad this week to seek support against Iran but seems to have returned empty handed despite billions in Saudi aid to Pakistan during the past three decades.
In contrast, Iran’s Shia theocracy fought an eight-year very painful war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq on its own and absorbed nearly 750,000 dead without falling apart.
The Saudi ambition of being the beacon for all Muslims is misplaced because the Saudi Salafi and Wahhabi royal family and religious leaders reject about 30% of all Muslims as apostate or false.
The only true doctrine for the Saudi royal and religious leaders is the Wahhabi strain of Salafi Islam. They tolerate various kinds of Sunni Islam but loathe Shai, Ahmadi, Alawite, Ismaili, Sufi or other Islamic doctrines.
This is a little strange since even in Saudi Arabia less than 22% of citizens are Salafi and Wahhabi while 15% are Shia.
Mecca and Medina are sacred for all Muslims and the Saudi regime allows pilgrimage from all sects but its religious leaders would like to convert everyone to their version of Islam.
The royal family and religious establishment are now being forced to come to terms with reality. They were trying to punch far above their weight.
As a modern nation, Saudi Arabia is young. King Abdulaziz Al-Saud established it less than a century ago in 1932.
Wahhabi theology is itself barely 250 years old. Yet, Saudi Arabia yearns to be the lighthouse of Islamic piety, example and learning that all Muslims emulate anywhere in the world.
To an extent, it created a self-serving illusion by buying the loyalty of impoverished Muslim communities around the world and feeding them its doctrines as being the best of Islam. Those veils are now being stripped away by the sheer violence and barbarity of Wahhabi-inspired zealots in country after country.
Perhaps, Gulf oil prices will rise again and Saudi Arabia will be valued once more by most countries as an indispensable supplier of energy. But many Sunnis may never think of it as a inspiration of Islamic theology.
In any case Iran, whether or not ruled by Shia theocrats, will no longer allow space for self-aggrandizement by the Saudi regime and Sunni theocracy. And the rest of the world is indifferent.
Eighty percent of the world’s people are not Muslims of any kind. They do not care about who leads the Islamic world. They care only for the contributions each country whatever its culture and beliefs makes to the wellbeing, prosperity and peace of the family of nations.
In this competition for constructive contributions, the Saudi royals will have an uphill struggle since they are too obsessed with sectarian issues internal to the Muslim identity.
Iran’s theocrats are not better. They are obsessed with retaining power over the Iranian people at any cost and do not hesitate to incite violence and war wherever they see opportunity and weakness in the region.
They may not win respect in the world even after the lifting of sanctions if the regime’s behavior continues to be as destabilizing and meddlesome as in the past.
But Iran is a bigger country with dynamic and ambitious people. It will now have a freer hand to block Saudi ambitions for Wahhabi hegemony over all Muslims or military hegemony in the region.
The Saudi establishment may have to get used to that. It is already being debilitated by falling revenues, budget problems and war in Yemen.
Its worst threat comes not from Iran but Sunni Islamic terrorists, including al Qaeda and the Islamic State, who say they want to overthrow the Saudi royal family for not being zealot enough.