There is a curious Saudi Arabia-Israel-Iran triangle in the Middle East politics. The recent shooting down of Israeli F-16 fighter near the border with Syria, reportedly by Iranians has escalated the tension in the region, which is already in turmoil.
Earlier last month, Tehran had accused Tel Aviv and Riyadh, besides Washington, of fanning trouble within Iran. The protests have now subsided.
The U-turn taken by Iran, a Shia dominated country, after the February 11, 1979 Islamic Revolution has not been properly understood, especially in some Sunni quarters. While the previous Raza Shah government had a good relationship with the Jewish state, snapping of ties with the United States and Israel was the first major foreign policy decision taken by Iran. In the last 39 years Iran steadfastly stood by its policy.
It raises another question. Why of all the Saudi royals, Mohammad bin Salman–who does not appear to be as orthodox as his predecessors, so anti-Iran? As a liberal on the religious matter, he should have avoided any such sectarian hard-line position.
Both the rulers in Iran and Saudi Arabia have been compelled by the circumstances to adopt this posture.
The leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Khomeini was aware of the fact that if the post-Revolution Iran wishes to be the leader of the Muslim, world it will have to take a firm and bold anti-Israel position. As Israel has been an occupant to the third holiest shrine of Islam––Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem–any such stand against it would make a leader very popular in the Islamic world dominated by Sunnis.
That was the time when Iran started investing heavily in the region. The Revolution and subsequent developments in Iran almost coincided with the then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s signing a peace treaty with Israel.
Iran was left with Syria and Lebanon as friends in Levant. Though the regime in Damascus was not at all Islamic, friendship with it suited Iran’s strategy. In neighbouring civil war-torn Lebanon the Iranian regime helped create a militant Shia-outfit, Hezbollah, which is known for the anti-Israel and anti-US stand. Hezbollah shot into limelight when on October 23, 1983 it carried out two massive suicide attacks on multi-national forces stationed in Beirut to kill 241 American and 58 French soldiers.
Years later Iran helped and armed Sunni-dominated Hamas in Gaza. It openly backed the Palestinian cause on all the international forums.
Almost four decades after the Revolution, if Iran has developed so much clout in the region it is largely because of its stand towards Israel.
Even today when several Sunni Arabs, including Salafists in Saudi Arabia, have softened their stand against Israel, Tehran has shown no sign of change. It knows that the day it adopts a different policy vis-à-vis Israel several Sunni dictators in the region would change their own stand and accuse Tehran of clandestinely cooperating or conspiring with Tel Aviv. In fact the Islamic State (IS) too follows a strong anti-Iran and anti-Shia line.
In contrast, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman, who is the de facto ruler, continues to adopt a very stiff anti-Iran stand, though his country has softened its stand against Israel.
Young Mohammad, who is considered as a fan of Indian PM Narendra Modi, is said to have a liberal image as he had recently introduced several reforms. But critics say that he is doing so to consolidate his grip on power as he has got rid of many of his challengers. He is trying to woo youngsters and women in his country.
It is because of his own political compulsions that he has shown no sign of change in his country’s stand towards Iran. As he had displeased many hardliners and clerics within his own country by taking some measures he cannot afford to show any sign of softness towards Iran. The ultra-Salafists within Saudi Arabia hate Shias, so Salman wants to keep them in good humour. By taking this position he successfully kept the Shia minorities in his own country under tight control and helped crush those princes who were posing threat to him.
Herein lies his strategy.
(Soroor Ahmed is a freelance journalist)