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Iran and Saudi Arabia: From Enmity & Enemies, to Diplomatic & Regional Harmony?

Demonstration in Mashhad against Saudi government after 2016 Mina Stampede
Demonstration in Mashhad against Saudi government after 2016 Mina Stampede

After a fractured and uneasy relationship across many decades has left two of the most powerful middle eastern nations, Iran and Saudi Arabia, at seemingly eternal loggerheads with one another, a diplomatic breakthrough might be close. This innovation would’ve been impossible to imagine during the Trump administration, simply because it would not and could not have ever happened; too much enmity was at play, especially because of the different ways in which each nation is treated for behaving quite similarly at times. Yet had the Trump administration, famously responsible for reneging the United States out of the JCPOA that Barack Obama had previously signed, been able to go ahead and execute the completion of the Tom Barrack supported and promulgated so-called Saudi Nuclear Deal, the odds of an Iranian-Saudi reconciliation along the lines that have been laid out in recent reports would be nearly non-existent.


The deal, of which would’ve granted Saudi Arabia and its close, sometimes ally, the United Arab Emirates, civilian grade nuclear reactors, was so infernal and corrupt sounding, that it was flagged by intelligence agencies and reported to Congress. The Saudi Public Investment Fund (PiF) was likely going to have to have to purchase an American company, initially, it was Westinghouse, that was creating the aforementioned nuclear reactors, in likely tandem with the private cooperation of Tom Barrack, which would’ve seen, had it all transpired as planned, two regional powers whose relations with Iran have not been historically positive, with civilian grade American reactors, right after Donald Trump reneged the United States from the Iranian Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), of which was not so much a government-supported business transaction as much as a real, diplomatic and humanitarian effort to safeguard the world from nuclear torment, help Iranians live better, more positive and healthy lives, as well as to fix relations between Iran, the United States, and the greater world at large. 


It would’ve made these current discussions very difficult, and would’ve also likely damaged the potential for recreating an Iranian Deal similar, or perhaps even the same, as the one that Barack Obama helped to forge, and which Donald Trump helped to destroy. As it relates to the relationship between only Iran and Saudi Arabia, however, the Saudi deal was not struck, and so, both current, potential deals, of which have much greater humanitarian and regional implications than did the Saudi Nuclear Deal, are very much quite alive; Iran wishes for them both, and the United States very likely does as well.


With this understood, those previously mentioned recent reports have suggested that Iranian and Saudi talks have been progressing, and that this progress could very well lead to real diplomatic breakthroughs between these nations. The implications of this for the United States, its allies, Iran and of course Saudi Arabia, would be massive, and were this deal to coincide with a recreation of the JCPOA, with those negotiations set to restart in November, they might be ever greater. A warming of relations between two, powerful opposing Islamic viewpoints, and two nations that are continuously caught up in human rights violations and accusations, albeit with very different outcomes of course, could absolutely help to change the course of circumstances and trends within that Middle Eastern region of the world. 


“The unlike is joined together, and from differences results the most beautiful harmony.” – Heraclitus


The “very different outcomes,” of which I alluded to in the previous paragraph, should be understood to refer to the markedly different stances that the United States has kept for each nation, despite that they are hardly that different in terms of domestic and regional repression or power. For Iran, the international diplomatic and economic pressure from the United States has been constant and nearly unbearable since the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79; this too, is when the Saudi Arabians also began to outwardly dislike their regional neighbors.


Apart from innovations during the administration of Barack Obama, that means its been over 40 years of pressure, of varying degrees, upon the Islamic Republic of Iran; this campaign of pressing, coercion, and assassination have not yielded the results that experts have for so long assured the world would be wrought with time, isolation and patience. Iran sits today with a great, horrific opiate problem, great poverty, massive swaths of poor men, women and children, a dire COVID-19 issue, international sanctions, millions of refugees from across the region, as well as a Kurdish population that also takes care of refugees, Kurdish or otherwise, particularly in the west and north-west of the nation, of which houses the presently-unofficial Kurdistan.


Iran has been further hurt by the renewed sanctions of the previous Trump administration, of which have not been reduced under the Biden administration, especially when in tandem with the COVID-19 pandemic that began sweeping the world in late 2019. The death toll between all of these factors has likely been immense, yet only the COVID death toll can be properly used as evidence towards this point as of today; deaths from poverty or drug-related issues remain more difficult to find data on for and in Iran. Today, with Principlist hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as the President, and much of the parliament in step with his Principlists too, the push to find a reasonable compromise with the United States under President Joe Biden continues, albeit slowly and frustratingly at the time that this essay was written; it is a dance that the Biden administration doesn’t seem fully enthusiastic regarding, in contrast to how the 44th President treated this mission, and while there is too much international pressure for the United States to remain out of sync with the diplomatic visions of the world and American allies, this lack of enthusiasm or any grand, innovative vision is not promising for the future of the deal and, therefore, relations between the two nations as well.


But even with this said, I do believe that the United States and Iran will find common ground in regards to this, just as both populations desire; there is simply too much riding on the assimilation of Iran back into the international community of the world, from the fate of Iran’s nuclear weapons program – which they have little practical, malevolent interest inother than as a bargaining chip – to the fate of the people of the country, and of course, relations in the region between Iran and the other powerful polities, like Saudi Arabia.


While Iran has been treated rather harshly over the last 40 years or so, Saudi Arabia still today enjoys the same treatment that Iran enjoyed before Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was forced to flee across the world, before finally finding himself in the United States; the Carter Administration’s decision to admit him, even as the new government of Iran wished for the Shah to stand trial for crimes he and his SAVAK secret police had committed over the nearly four decades of his rule that had begun in September of 1941, was the incident that sparked the Iranian hostage crisis, of which the Carter Administration had been warned would likely occur should it grant the Shah asylum, in the first place.


But Saudi Arabia, literally named after the ancient and royal family who brought the central Arabian peninsula under the famous and despotic reign of the famous Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, known in the English world as simply Ibn Saud, ultimately united the separate regions of Nejd, where the gorgeous capital city of Riyadh is located, as well as the emirates of al-Hasa, Jebel Shammar, Asir, and Hejaz, where both Mecca and Medina are located, which came to comprise the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, over the course of some 30 years beginning in 1902 and ending with the creation of Saudi Arabia proper by 1932. This “third kingdom” as it is known by historians so as to differentiate itself from the previous two, more fragmented kingdoms of Saud, is the same kingdom that has ruled with an iron fist in the land ever since; while the Ottomans and the British had shown interest in the peninsula, having previously bullied and exiled the Wahhabist Saud family to Kuwait in the 19th century, western interest in the nation dramatically increased once again as soon as oil was discovered in the region in 1938. 


Within just two years of that discovery, by 1940, and just approximately eight years after official diplomatic recognition of the puritanical Kingdom by the United States, an American ambassador was posted in the seaport city of Jeddah. And while this relationship has, ever since, cultivated benefits for capital interests in both nations, and has consequently and subsequently brought America and Saudi Arabia closer together over that nearly eight decades, for better and worse, of course, the United States has had to turn its head away from some fairly horrific human rights violations in and by Saudi Arabia during this stretch; America has ignored these acts, often perpetrated in the name of their own brand of Islam, known as “Wahhabism” as best as they have been able to because of the great supply of oil within the nation, as well as their own amiable disposition towards both capital and capitalism. 


Wahhabism, which translates variously to “orthodox” or “puritanical,” and has been the Saud’s own particular brand of Islam since it was adopted by the eponymous tribe during the late 18th century, before it gained further life during the late 19th, early 20th and early 21st centuries; it should be well known to all westerners at this point, as it is, after all, the brand of Islam most closely and historically linked to some of the most famous suicide bombings and hi-jackings of the later 20th and early 21st centuries, and would become a firm target of the famous and infamous American “war on terror.”


Iran has, generally speaking, been aloof regarding Saudi Arabia for much of the time since it came to be; after the Iranian Revolution, things only grew worse, and have since only become even more uncomfortable and regrettable.  In the more modern context, Iran’s backing of the western effort to rid the middle east of groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda during the first decade of the 21st century further demonstrates this. This puritanical and warped vision of the beautiful concepts of Islam however, has not caused enough damage it seems to tear apart Saudi Arabia from its longtime American ally in the same way that Iranian human rights violations have kept Iran disconnected from the United States.


Which brings us back to today, in 2021; what are the implications of these two powerful and historic middle eastern nations and peoples looking to reconcile themselves towards better, more cooperative relations? They are potentially astounding, and could perhaps lead to political and social innovations in each of the repressive nations, should the United States demand that those types of concessions are part of doing business with America and its allies. I think that the process is pretty fluid right now, and that, while many different and seemingly unrelated diplomatic discussions are taking place, or teasing that talks are close or positive, things could come together faster than many people are expecting should compromises be met, agreements be reached and an honest, transparent brace of bilateral and multilateral deals be accepted by all involved parties; first off, of course, comes the negotiations.

“Humanity must seek what is NOT simple and obvious using the simple and obvious” – Gaius Musonius Rufus


As the United States and Iran continue to lock horns in regards to how the old JCPOA should be reinstated, or what must occur from either party for each to agree to a reinstatement. Iran has continued to cause trouble for international inspectors of every persuasion and institute, and seems set on playing hardball with Joe Biden and his allies after what Donald Trump did to sabotage the progress that the likes of Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani, alongside the entire European Union and the P5+1.


As Saudi Arabia is already in the good graces of nearly all of those nations, even the ones whose various medias are not afraid to call their own governments out for failing to crack down on Saudi human rights violations, it would seem to me that the Iranian-Saudi Deal would make sense to be agreed to after the greater JCPOA is restarted or a sort of JCPOA 2.0 is agreed to, because once that is settled upon, Saudi Arabia and Iran could engage in full, undeterred economic and diplomatic endeavors without international sanctions getting in the way of whatever might come to be agreed to. 


While I have previously mentioned the poll that states that both Americans and Iranians wish for a renewed Iran Nuclear Deal, other important, recent polls indicate that a majority of Iranians desire election and economic reforms, as well as that the three least popular groups in the country, not individual peoples, were the Taliban, the United States, and Saudi Arabia. These dual deals would help to work on the latter two countries perceptions within Iran the economic innovations that will come from these agreements, as well as the development of trust between the people and societies of each nation and ideology after so many fraught decades.


Furthermore, it would ensure for the rest of the world, as much as for Saudi Arabia, that Iran is not continuing to develop weapons-grade nuclear resources, as opposed to that which is used for civilian grade purposes. When Iran is once again in the process of demonstrating its trustworthiness to the international community once again, as it was previously doing, an Iranian-Saudi deal could have further positive implications for both nations hopefully, and might create a better understanding of their ideologically unique Islamic cousins. Greater economic opportunities will help both nations, and in fact, all parties involved, in the middle east or otherwise when both the JCPOA and the Iranian-Saudi deals can be signed off upon, but the United States must, in their position as allies with Saudi Arabia and as distrusted and mistrusted villains by Iran and Iranians, use these mutual influences to push to pressure each nation for their greater human rights violations, while creatin clear incentives for each polity to refrain from behaving with such brutal apathy for others.


This is, of course, a lesson that the United States is still trying to handle regarding itself and its own history, and so must look to take responsibility for its past and present inequities as it uses its outsized economic and diplomatic influence to create greater accountability for other countries as well. Each innovation, were it accomplished under the Biden Administration, would be additional feathers in their proverbial caps, and while the JCPOA is the most major foreign endeavor that might be accomplished by the 46th President, the former 47th Vice-President, it would be no small feat to have worked through the difficulties spawned by the Trump Administration, and to also watch longtime American allies Saudi Arabia, who during the last administration, were able to gain American assistance and comradery for their sometimes-ally, the United Arab Emirates, further cement the positivity of reconciling ties and working with Iran by consummating a deal along those very same lines.


But there is still much to be done, and no matter what, the President must focus on getting his chickens in their proverbial row with the JCPOA and the formidable Ebrahim Raisi, backed by the Ayatollah in a way that Hassan Rouhani, beloved as he has been over the years, never really was. If he can climb that mountain and find compromise with the Iranian government once again, the rest of the affairs will fall into order I suspect. The Saudi Arabians aren’t looking to create official, foreign violence as much as they wish to make money, and a nation like Iran, kept in a sort of isolated, pseudo-excommunicated state vis-a-vis the diplomatic and economic international community, could use that community, including Saudi Arabia, to help create a better overall standard for the people of the country itself. Should America and Joe Biden wield their dual hard and soft powers wisely and with foresight, the plights and hardships of the citizenry of both Iran and Saudi Arabia might, in the final analysis, finally find real innovation thanks to capital or influence of the whole interested and invested global community, and that would be a real step forward for Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the entire world in general.


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