A “grand bargain” between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

Historian Vijay Prashad is an astute commentator on the regional situation in Southwest Asia, more commonly referred to as the Middle East.

In this recent talk the professor at Connecticut’s Trinity College describes the “foreign policy of the one percent.”

As exemplified by the United States, this tiny elite pursues endless accumulation and sees war as a normal and desirable tool.

On the other side is the “foreign policy of the 99 percent,” which looks for “grand bargains” and seeks justice.

Prashad was speaking earlier this month at the anti-war group CODEPINK’s Summit on Saudi Arabia, so his focus was very much on that country and its regional rivalry with Iran.

Religion is not at the root of this rivalry. As Prashad points out, the Saudis were very close to Iran when it was a US ally under the Shah. But sectarianism has been an effective tool to mobilize forces on Saudi Arabia’s side.

Saudi power in decline

Yet Prashad sees Saudi Arabia as a power in decline, its ambitions frustrated on all sides – chiefly its inability to check the regional influence of Iran.

He provides some recent context. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq, and to some extent the US invasion of Afghanistan two years earlier, had the unintended consequence of empowering Iran.

Iran, for instance, gained unprecedented influence over Iraq’s post-invasion government.

This led to a counteroffensive, supported by the George W. Bush administration, Israel and Saudi Arabia to “put Iran back in its box,” as Prashad describes it.

First there was the disastrous Israeli war to destroy the Iranian-allied Hizballah in Lebanon in 2006.

Although it inflicted massive death and destruction, Israel ended up suffering a strategic defeat at the hands of the same resistance group that had forced it to end its occupation of Southern Lebanon in 2000.

As investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported a decade ago, the US and its allies saw the Israeli attack on Lebanon as a “demo” for a preemptive strike on Iran.

When that failed, there began the effort to constrain Iran through sanctions.

Then came the so-called Arab Spring of 2011, which Saudi Arabia sought to halt or subvert at all costs.

“Fantasizing about Iranian influence”

As Prashad elaborates in an article for Alternet, Saudi Arabia backed regime change in Syria and Libya and supported or carried out interventions everywhere it “fantasized about Iranian influence,” including Bahrain, Yemen and Lebanon.

But its policies have sown chaos while failing to halt a US-Iranian rapprochement, the most notable outcome of which is last year’s nuclear agreement.

Prashad sees Saudi Arabia engaging in “regional tantrums,” not least its year-long bombardment of Yemen and its recent designation of Hizballah as a “terrorist” organization.

The spectacle of the richest Arab country bombarding the poorest continues “despite no evidence of strategic gains” and much harm to Yemen’s people.

The Saudis are now realizing that they are isolated and do not have the resources to impose their desired outcomes in Syria and Yemen, Prashad argues.

The current, fragile “cessation of hostilities” in Syria has given the population there some respite from years of unspeakable horror.

It also represents Saudi Arabia’s coming to terms with the limitations of its power, Prashad says.

In this he sees a glimmer of hope about a possible grand bargain between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

“The people of the region don’t deserve to be the victims of proxy wars,” he adds.

Saudi Arabia is still coddled – and armed – by the US and its allies, but that does not mean it has a blank check.

“The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians, which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen, requires us to say to our friends, as well as to the Iranians, that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace,” US President Barack Obama said last week.

The Saudis have reacted to those comments with rage, betraying a sense that the US is abandoning them. The Saudi outlook, then, is very similar to Israel’s, whose leaders feel insecure about long-term American support even though the Obama administration is pushing US military aid to Israel up to record levels.

Monday’s announcement by Russia that it will begin withdrawing forces from Syria could be a signal that Russia wants the current round of Syria peace talks to succeed and that a grand bargain that would end the war is on the horizon.

Prashad says he hopes Russia’s move “will strengthen resolve for the peace talks in Geneva.”

The video was published by The Real News.

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“The people of the region don’t deserve to be the victims of proxy wars,”

^This is the key thing. Also for the Saudis and Iranians to understand that if they keep fighting each other, they keep weakening each other, and third parties will be the ones to come and take advantage of both because of it.

Sometimes when you have a lot of historical resentments, it is hard to rise above them, but it is the smarter thing to do. 'When you plot a course of revenge, first dig two graves.'

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.