01/14/2016, 00.00
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Closing embassies in Riyadh and Tehran, not a game changer in the Middle East

by Afshin Shahi*
For years, Saudis and Iranians have ignored diplomatic channels, choosing instead to excoriate each other. Anti-Iranian and anti-Saudi waves help the two regimes to boost popular support for their policies.

London (AsiaNews) – When the Saudi authorities announced that they had had ‘enough’ and cut official relations with Tehran, some observers viewed it as a ‘turning point’, which would have disastrous implications for the rest of the region. However, this assumption is largely exaggerated. The end of diplomatic ties between the two states is not going to change anything fundamental, simply because diplomatic channels are only meaningful when there is a mutual desire for diplomacy.

In fact, over the last five years, the two states have been just short of being in the state of war. Tehran and Riyadh have fundamental differences over Syria, Yemen, Iraq and many other corners of the region and yet they have made no attempt to use the diplomatic channels to reach a resolution. Instead, they have been using various proxies to gain advantage by force and undermine each other’s position at any cost.

Over the last five years, the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the Iranian embassy in Riyadh became in effect platforms for the host countries to ‘officially’ express their anger. The sense of mutual mistrust, cynicism, anger and rivalry reached a point that made the meaningful functioning of the two embassies impossible. Although the end of diplomatic ties has a symbolic significance, it is not going to be a game changer at this stage. Indeed, when there is little interest in diplomatic bargaining, the presence or absence of official diplomatic channels is pointless. 

Saudi move

However, there are grounds for the argument that the Saudi move to expel Iranian diplomats and withdraw its own will have more internal than external significance. In fact, the Saudi move to unilaterally cut diplomatic ties with Iran can be seen as a political triumph for the ruling elite inside the kingdom. It is a triumph because the Saudi establishment can finally use popularity gained from its foreign policy to address internal issues. Although this maybe only effective in the short term, it seems to be working for now. 

Over the last three decades, fundamental aspects of Saudi foreign policy were a liability at home. The close relationship with the West including ‘inviting’ an American military base to the country from 1991 until 2003 antagonised a very significant portion of the population, particularly the ultra-conservative segment of the Saudi society.

The Saudi policy to accommodate a western military base in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques significantly undermined the legitimacy of the House of Saud. It is said that the atrocities of 9/11, the Khobor Towers bombing and the 1998 US embassy bombings were all a response to this Saudi policy. Internally, various insurgency networks emerged to topple the House of Saud because they regarded the establishment as illegitimate. They regarded Saudi foreign policy as one of their main reasons to rise against the state. Although today the country faces new security impediments such as ISIS, the Saudi ruling establishment has created a new legitimising bridge between its foreign policy and creating consent at home.

Since the demise of the Baathist regime in Iraq, which shifted the regional balance of power in favour Iran, confronting the so-called Shia Crescent has been one of the main pillars of Saudi foreign policy, which is proving to be more popular at home particularly with the Wahhabi establishment.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have never been easy neighbours and their mutual sense of mistrust has deep historical roots. In recent years, Iranophobia has been on the rise in Saudi Arabia more than at any other time in recent history.  Iranophobia is penetrating deeply into the national consciousness because it fuses both sectarianism and nationalism into a very powerful binary, which could mobilise the masses behind the ruling establishment.  At a time when the ruling elite is facing internal challenges, religio-nationalist narratives – which in the battle of ‘good ‘ against ‘evil’ put the country on the side of ‘good’ – is a valuable political asset.

Iranian move

Not surprisingly, the Iranian state is facing the same situation. For over 35 years, the fundamental aspects of Iranian foreign policy hardly created enthusiasm among the wider segments of Iranian society. In fact, a big section of the population disagreed with the ideological nature of anti-Americanism in Iranian foreign policy. However, in recent years, arguably for the first time since the revolution, the state has been able to gain significant internal support for its foreign policy.

The rise of ISIS which according to Iranian authorities is connected to the Wahhabi creed and the recent incidents such the killing of Iranian pilgrims in Manna have significantly increased the anti-Saudi sentiment in the country. Indeed, the growing anti-Saudi sentiment has gained more internal support for the Iranian position in the region, particularly in Syria. Hence, a harsher position against Saudi Arabia externally can have internal benefits for the Iranian state too.

Indeed, given the complex internal situation in both countries, the level of polarisation between the two states and the lack of mutual political willingness to reach a diplomatic compromise at least in the short term, the closure of the embassies is likely to be of little significance in the current regional political dynamic. 

The business of rivalry and mistrust will go on after the embassy closure just as it has done before.

* Director of the Centre for the Study of Political Islam and lecturer in International Relations and Middle East Politics at the University of Bradford, United Kingdom

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