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Australia's bridge-building role in Saudi-Iran dispute

Justin Glyn |  17 January 2016

Australian leaders have made much in recent times of the need for a peaceful solution to the interrelated conflicts in the Middle East. If they were interested, now might be a unique opportunity for bridge-building.

American sailors detained in Iranian watersThe rapidly-intensifying struggle in the Gulf between the powerhouses of Iran and Saudi Arabia has many roots. Iran is the largest Shi'a Muslim country in the world and has a partially-democratic theocratic political system. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni monarchy with control over the holiest sites in Islam.

Each sees itself as the leading Muslim power and their dispute evokes centuries-old Persian-Arab tensions.

Immediate causes of the present quarrel include the deaths of nearly 500 Iranian pilgrims in the latest haj (allegedly due to poor organisation) and obstruction of attempts to repatriate them, Saudi Arabia's execution of a prominent Shi'a theologian, Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr and the mobbing of the Saudi embassy in Tehran in response. (Nimr was an ayatollah, recognised within Shi'a Islam as having the knowledge and virtue to issue authoritative opinions on the faith, and his 'trial' was widely regarded as a sham.)

Though Iranian police drove the protestors off fairly swiftly, Saudi has allegedly bombed Iran's embassy in Yemen (though this itself is contested) and diplomatic ties have been cut.

In the long run, this dispute benefits neither player. Iran is attempting to shake off international sanctions following the nuclear deal it recently struck and Saudi Arabia is already mired in a year-old, stalled invasion of Yemen which has seen increasing Saudi and civilian casualties for little to no gain on the ground.

Additionally, the rivals support opposite sides in Syria. The Saudis, like the US and Turkey, have thrown their backing behind hardline Salafist fighters like the Al Qaeda linked Al Nusra Front seeking to overthrow Bashar al-Assad (although they, like the Turks, have a more ambivalent attitude to ISIS than do the Americans).

The Iranians, like the Russians and increasingly the Iraqis, regard Assad as the best of a bad bunch who is at least a non-sectarian tyrant (unlike the rebels who kill Shi'as and Christians) and therefore worthy of support, at least until the insurgencies have been defeated.

The US, while backing Saudi (including militarily in Yemen) seems to be increasingly exasperated with how far it has to stick its neck out for its ally. While muting overt criticism because of the ongoing proxy war between the US and Russia in Syria, the US is unlikely to be committed enough to the Saudi point of view to send ground forces in support of Al Nusra. It would probably like to see some sort of diplomatic endgame, albeit one which sees Iran and Russia compromising more than the US.

Relationships with Iran, by contrast, have improved recently, demonstrated by the swift release this week of American sailors detained in Iranian waters (pictured).

The difficulty is that sections within both Iran and Saudi Arabia's governments seem to see a certain short-term interest in tearing the region apart.

For the Iranian conservatives who oppose their pragmatic president, Hassan Rouhani, the Saudi crisis represents an opportunity to wave a nationalist flag and diminish his credibility without directly opposing the nuclear deal and the compromises made with the Americans and others.

For those in the Saudi royal family (led by the young and relatively inexperienced defence minister, Prince Salman) who see Middle East politics through the lens of a zero-sum game between Sunni and Shi'a Islam, the Iranian nuclear deal means greater freedom for Iran — and by implication, a worse position for Saudi Arabia. (This thinking seems to be what lay behind the Yemen invasion.)

It is in allaying some of these fears that Australia might play a useful role. Unlike most US allies, Australia has full diplomatic ties with Iran. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is Australia's second biggest trade partner in the region (behind Saudi ally, the UAE).

While clearly not a neutral party (it is as much a US ally as Saudi), Australia stands outside the Sunni-Shi'a divide and would have America's ear if it wished to seriously pursue a bridge-building role, perhaps with the support of others. It would therefore be in a good position to allay some of the more hardline Saudi fears, perhaps with US-backed carrots, while keeping a channel of communication open with Iran.

Improved relations, if these were possible, would have broader repercussions. Negotiating an end to the Syrian quagmire would be much less fraught, relief for the hard-pressed Yemeni population would likely result and the treatment of religious minorities across the region could be alleviated. These could include the Sunni minorities in Iran and Iraq as well, the Shi'a minority in Saudi Arabia and the Shi'a majority in Bahrain (currently ruled by a Sunni and Saudi-backed monarchy).

While not easy, this would be a real triumph for Australian diplomacy.


Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ is studying for the priesthood. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.



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Submitted comments

I would go further,Beyond capturing "America's ear"... to establishing its own foreign policy - recognising Basher al Assad and supporting a UN managed plebiscite in Syria . The US has been anti- Syria (and anti- Iran) for years . It supported the Sunni rebels of the Free Syrian Army , and caused a sectarian war. Australia should established its own US independent foreign policy

Dr. Peter Bowden 18 January 2016

I've never been able to understand why Saudi Arabia has been seen as one of the Goodies while Iran has been seen as one of the Baddies. Does it all go back to US Embassy case? That was 1979 for goodness sake, more than 36 years ago. Is it that has so much oil and is therefore the custodian of oil prices, and therefore the profitability of global oil companies? Or is that it is a de facto ally of Israel, about the only one that Israel has left in the region?

Ginger Meggs 18 January 2016

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