Iranian Diplomacy’s interview with Dr. Mehran Kamrava, Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
– Considering recent developments in Saudi diplomacy, such as rejecting UN Security Council membership, not accepting to cooperate to hold the Geneva-2 conference on Syria, attempts to find a new ally in the world to replace the US, …, how would you assess Saudi diplomacy at the present time?
– Saudi Arabia has long followed a foreign policy that may be described as “bandwagoning”, whereby it has sought shelter in the American security umbrella and aligned its foreign and security policies with that of the US. In such cases, countries that bandwagon often worry about “entrapment” and “abandonment”, worrying that they might be either trapped in the policy adventures of their guardians or, alternatively, be abandoned by them. Right now, because of the prospects of negotiations between the US and Iran, Saudi Arabia is worried about being abandoned by the US. That’s why its foreign policy lately has reflected an unprecedented degree of panic and worry.
– In your opinion, could Saudi Arabia distance itself from the US and be inclined towards China or Europe? To what extent does the US consider closeness between China and Saudi Arabia a threat? How challenging do you think Saudi Arabia’s policies are for the US?
– No. US-Saudi relations are rooted in deep economic, diplomatic, and military relations. Saudi Arabia wants to make sure that the US does not take it for granted and does not abandon it. But its ties with the US are too deeply rooted for there to be a meaningful realignment toward either China or the EU. These concerns will be resolved over time, as the US continues to reassure the Saudis that the fundamental basis of their relationship will not be changed. The US relationship with Saudi Arabia is too lucrative and profitable for the US to let it be easily abandoned.
– It is said that the presence of different factions in Saudi Arabia’s political scene has directed this country towards political chaos. This has led to the absence of a united voice in Saudi diplomacy. Can such an interpretation be made with regard to Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic behavior?
– There are, of course, different factions within Saudi Arabia’s royal family. But there is a fair amount of coordination at the highest levels of decisions-making when it comes to foreign policy.
– Saudi Arabia attempts to advance a separate agenda on the issue of Syria in accordance with its own special equations. Considering Qatari policies with regard to Syria and the policies of other countries involved in this issue like Iran, the US, and Russia, do you predict that Saudi Arabia will be able to achieve its objectives in Syria? What leverage does Saudi Arabia have to advance its goals and what are its weak points?
– Saudi Arabia is committing a tremendous amount of money and resources to Syria to ensure the collapse of the Assad regime. But so far the Assad regime has proven a lot more resilient and it appears to be regaining some of the strength it had lost in the past. Clearly, the Assad regime has lost considerable power compared to before, but so far Saudi Arabia’s policy objectives have not had their desired success. Also, after the experiences of Libya and Egypt, and also the growth of Al-Qaeda and other extremists in Syria, the US is concerned about developments in a post-Assad Syria. This is another reason why the Saudis are at odds with the US, believing that that the US has abandoned them in Syria and does not support their policy objectives.
– Following his election as Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani reiterated in his first press conference the necessity of improving relations with Saudi Arabia and opening a new chapter in these relations. His election was also welcomed by the Saudis. But after 100 days since the establishment of Rouhani’s government, not only have these relations not been improved but Saudi Arabia has also been acting against Iran in certain cases including the nuclear dossier. Why did these optimisms lose their momentum and what challenges exist on the path towards improving relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia? Could we envisage a future for the improvement of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the shadow of developments in the region?
– Just recently FM Zarif maintained in a press interview that Iran’s relations with its neighbors are Iran’s top priority. So far, the Rouhani administration has focused on the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 and has not made major foreign policy moves in the other areas–in relations to Iran’s neighbors across the Persian Gulf, in Syria, etc. I can only imagine the relations with Saudi Arabia and the other Arab countries improve.
– It has been reported that Qatar is attempting to improve its relations with Iran and the Defense Minister of this country has even welcomed the expansion of security relations and the creation of a strategic pact with Iran. In your opinion, what would Saudi Arabia’s approach be with regard to the improvement of relations between Iran and Qatar? Does Saudi Arabia consider Qatar as a rival in regional relations with Tehran on one hand, and in regional relations with the international community, on the other?
– There have long been rivalries between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and in this rivalry they offer make both intentional and regional moves and alliances. I doubt if Qatar will make substantive and meaningful moves toward security cooperation with Iran, but, in line with its broader foreign policy moves, it is eager to improve its relations with Iran, and it is likely to do so in the coming months.
– Do you believe that Saudi Arabia truly considers the closeness of relations between Iran and the West to be to its disadvantage? Why?
– For more than thirty years, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf have capitalized on tensions between Iran and the United States. Saudi Arabia and the other regional states are concerned that if these tensions lessen, they will lose their comparative advantage in the region, and will not be able to capitalize on their pro-US policies.
– The Times of London published a report last week stating that Saudi Arabia looks to purchase nuclear weapons from Pakistan. Since long ago, Saudi Arabia has been accused of attempting to buy nuclear weapons. Even in 1989, this country was accused of purchasing missiles with nuclear warheads from China. Do you think that acquiring nuclear weapons is one of Saudi Arabia’s objectives? How effective do you think Saudi Arabia’s achievement of nuclear weapons would be in changing the political equations of the region? In that case, what impacts would this issue have on the approach of the international community towards Iran’s nuclear dossier?
– This is a rumor that Saudi Arabia encouraged in order to put pressure on the US in its relations with Iran. The Saudis have indeed said, and I believe they will, buy a nuclear device from Pakistan if others in the region acquire them, but I think this is at best a future possibility rather than a probability.