In a statement released Monday, Saudi Arabia’s information ministry claims that the Saudi Navy captured three members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from a boat, which was intercepted as it approached the Gulf monarchy’s offshore Marjan oilfield. The three are said to have been questioned last Friday by Saudi authorities following their capture, at which time two other IRGC members escaped. The vessel itself is alleged to have been carrying explosives with the purpose of conducting a “terrorist attack” in Saudi territorial waters, according to the statement. The Iranian response to this story has been swift, with its local news agency, Tasnim, claiming that Saudi border guards had opened fire on an Iranian fishing boat in the Gulf on Friday, killing a fisherman in the process. The boat, Tasnim says, was one of two Iranian boats fishing in the Gulf that had been pushed off course by waves. Worse yet, a representative of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Iran, Mejid Aka-Babai, stressed that the Saudi border guards opened fire on the boats without clarifying the situation. He also added that investigations are underway to determine whether the fishermen actually entered the territorial waters of Saudi Arabia. However, which of the two stories is actually true remains to be seen.
Based on what we do know about this latest incident though, it is safe to say that it marks another low point in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Just recently, Iran accused its rival of funding Sunni Islamist militants, such as the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the recent terror attacks in its capital, Tehran. The Saudi government denied any involvement in the attacks, which left at least 17 dead and wounded 52 others. Faced with an already complex diplomatic situation, owing to the ongoing diplomatic row between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours, the growing tension between the Islamic Republic and the Saudi monarchy represents a significant impediment to regional stability. The recent fallout between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours serves to drive home this point, especially since it was inspired by Qatar’s perceived “soft” stance towards Iran. The Saudi-led coalition of Gulf monarchies now seems determined to both punish and isolate Qatar in a bid to draw a desired response from their “dissenting” neighbour. As of yet, it remains to be seen what the outcome of that particular row will be. In the meantime though, one can’t help but draw parallels between the current controversy and previous diplomatic falling-outs between Iran and the Saudi government. In April 2016, the Saudi authorities banned Iranian tankers from entering their ports and limited their access to territorial waters.
Judging by how events have transpired over the past few months, it has become quite clear that peaceful solutions are much-needed. Yet, the status quo appears to suit some of the key actors involved, especially in the case of the newly appointed crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, who has made his stance clear regarding Iran. A recent televised statement served to highlight this point. For instance, during the broadcast he appeared to rule out any chance of dialogue between the countries, even going so far as to warn that his kingdom would “bring war” to Iran. Owing to his portfolio as Saudi Minister of Defence and his crucial role in organizing President Trump’s recent visit to the kingdom, these words come as no surprise. The crown prince’s bellicose stance towards Iran should not only be a cause for alarm, but should also prompt the Trump administration, itself, to play the role of peace-broker, even more so at a time when the spectre of ISIS looms over much of the region and beyond. As opposed to fanning the flames of a Cold War-style conflict, which has seen proxy-wars in both Syria and Yemen stretch out longer than initially projected, the current US administration should reconsider its strategy, which paints Iran as a force of evil and emboldens its Saudi allies. As well, it is important to question the wisdom of maintaining the current level of anti-Iranian rhetoric, considering how groups like ISIS seem to thrive when presented with opportunities to capitalize on the geopolitical and sectarian nature of this rivalry. Furthermore, mutual claims and accusations about interference in each other’s internal affairs see both Iran and Saudi Arabia play right into the hands of these extremist groups.
Positive leadership, of the kind witnessed in the back-channel efforts, which resulted in the much-maligned yet crucial Iran nuclear agreement is necessary, now more than ever. Drawing lessons from that experience, coupled with its ability to exert influence in the region, the U.S. should seek to establish channels of dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This could potentially open a path towards joint efforts in tackling the most pressing issues in the Middle East. Success on that front largely depends on the willingness of the leaders of both countries to scale back their recent rhetoric. Mutual distrust will likely continue to exist between them, but an uneasy relationship is better than a zero-sum game between major regional powers.
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