|Jan. 13, 2016: In this edition
Five questions about the Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict
Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to grow following Riyadh's execution of a Shiite cleric on Jan. 2. The rift is impacting other parts of the region, including Yemen and Syria, where Saudi Arabia and Iran are involved in proxy wars, and complicating U.S. rapprochement with Iran, which yesterday released 10 U.S. sailors briefly detained after their two small boats drifted into Iranian waters. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East, answers five critical questions about the Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict.
From Iran’s perspective, what would be a reasonable resolution to the conflict with Saudi Arabia?
A reasonable resolution to the conflict with Saudi Arabia would involve recognizing that the conflict in Yemen must be ended through diplomacy and political negotiation and resuming dialogue on a possible regional agreement on Syria. The difficulty of assigning any one “monolithic” perspective to Iran is that there are multiple and sometimes competing centers of power in Iran, each with their own sets of national and regional interest. This was on display in the response to the Saudi executions, whereby the pragmatists at the heart of the Iranian government condemned the actions of the mobs that targeted the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and the Consulate in Mashhad, while the Supreme Leader was far more incendiary in his denunciation of Saudi actions.
Iran in recent months has publicly stated that it is committed to a new era of peace and encouraging stability in the Middle East region. Does the Saudi dispute now cast doubt on those statements?
The dispute with Saudi Arabia and, especially, the response by elements within Iran, will have cast doubts on whether the country as a whole has changed as much as advocates of the nuclear deal claim. Images of embassies and consulates being ransacked and burned resonate deeply in key Western capitals, not least the United States and the United Kingdom. So, too, does the incident of the detention of two U.S. Navy boats in the Gulf on Jan. 12. Coming at a time when both the Iranian government and the Obama administration are placing great emphasis on the fact that Iran has changed its ways, such scenes have proven damaging and have provided opponents to the nuclear agreement — both in the United States and in Iran — with extra ammunition. Although the U.S. Navy personnel were released, the incident illustrated the vulnerability of U.S.-Iran ties to the competing interests at play within Iran, whereby hard-line elements may take actions that actively undermine moderates within the governing spectrum in Iran.
Iran has suffered repercussions from not only Saudi Arabia, but other Arab countries like Bahrain, Sudan, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, who have either severed ties with Iran or are taking steps to cut off diplomatic relations with the country. How crippling are these actions?
Iran only had minimal trade with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, so it will not suffer heavily from the suspension of diplomatic relations with either country. Kuwait only recalled its ambassador, while the UAE merely downgraded ties. The far closer economic ties between Iran and the UAE likely reflects the Emirati decision to maintain the basics of a working relationship with Iran, particularly when UAE-based entities could become the primary beneficiaries of any rolling back of the international sanctions on Iran in coming months.
The conflict between the two countries has primarily been framed as a sectarian Sunni-Shia divide. Is that a fair portrayal, or are there other critical factors fueling this diplomatic crisis?
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia use religion as a tool in what is essentially a political and ideological struggle for regional hegemony in the Gulf and elsewhere in the Middle East. To the extent that Iran views itself as a natural leader of Shia Islam and Saudi Arabia sees itself as the equivalent in Sunni Islam, there is a sectarian dimension.
How does this impact ongoing peace negotiations for various conflicts within the Middle East? Are all eyes on Iran and Saudi Arabia for how to move forward?
The escalation of the Iran-Saudi dispute almost certainly sounds the death knell for any hopes of an imminent breakthrough in Yemen, given that the Saudis are a direct participant in the conflict and are likely to escalate their involvement in the war. The fragile ceasefire agreed on Dec. 15 in Yemen broke down on Jan. 2, the day Saudi Arabia announced the executions, and the peace talks scheduled to resume on Jan. 14 have been postponed. It is hard to see the negotiations gaining sufficient momentum so long as there is such an edge to Saudi-Iran ties. Similarly, while Syrian representatives must be at the heart of the peace negotiations set to begin on Jan. 25 in Geneva, Saudi Arabia and Iran represent the two most actively involved regional states, and their support (or lack of) will go a long way to determining the fate of the talks. At the very least, Saudi Arabia and Iran need to get onto the same page in terms of identifying the outlines of a political solution in Syria, and the current impasse makes that very unlikely.
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Research and News
- What recapturing 'El Chapo' means for US-Mexico relations, by Tony Payan, Françoise and Edward Djerejian Fellow for Mexico Studies and director of the Mexico Center. January 13
- Why Aren't There Any Progressive Muslim Parties and Why That's a Problem, by A.Kadir Yildirim, research scholar, Center for the Middle East. January 12
- Legal Barriers to Adolescent Participation in Research About HIV and Other Sexually Transmitted Infections, by Quianta Moore, health policy scholar; Mary E. Paul, associate professor of pediatrics-retroviology, Baylor College of Medicine; Amy L. McGuire, Leon Jaworski Professor of Biomedical Ethics and director, Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy, Baylor College of Medicine; and Mary A. Majumder, associate professor of medicine, Baylor College of Medicine. January 11
- Nuclear energy in the Middle East: Chimera or solution?, by Jim Krane, Wallace S. Wilson Fellow in Energy Studies; Amy Myers Jaffe, executive director for energy and sustainability, University of California, Davis; and Jareer Elass, energy analyst. January 11
- These diseases could make news in Texas in 2016, by Peter J. Hotez, fellow in disease and poverty. January 7
- HMRS Issue Brief #17, by Vivian Ho, James A. Baker III Institute Chair in Health Economics and director of the Center for Health and Biosciences, and Elena M. Marks, nonresident fellow in health policy and president and CEO of the Episcopal Health Foundation. January 7
- The Macroeconomic Impact of Increasing U.S. LNG Exports, by Kenneth B. Medlock III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow in Energy and Resource Economics and senior director, Center for Energy Studies; Adrian Cooper, Oxford Economics; Michael Kleiman, Oxford Economics; and Scott Livermore, Oxford Economics. January 5
- Iran-Saudi crisis 'most dangerous for decades,’ by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East. January 4
- In the GOP, two definitions of the ideal conservative, by Mark P. Jones, Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies and fellow in political science. December 23
- HMRS Issue Brief #16, by Vivian Ho, James A. Baker III Institute Chair in Health Economics and director of the Center for Health and Biosciences, and Elena M. Marks, nonresident fellow in health policy and president and CEO of the Episcopal Health Foundation. December 17
- Mosquito-Transmitted Epidemics: Dengue, Chikungunya and West Nile in the United States and Mexico, by Kirstin R.W. Matthews, fellow in science and technology policy, and Jennifer R. Herricks, postdoctoral fellow in disease and poverty. December 16
- Finding a new approach to stem cell regulation, by Kirstin R.W. Matthews, fellow in science and technology policy, and Ana Iltis, professor of philosophy and director, Center for Bioethics, Health and Society, Wake Forest University. December 16
- Thoughtful Planning Is Essential To Meet The Renewable Fuel Standard, by Ghasideh Pourhashem, postdoctoral fellow, Center for Energy Studies. December 14
- Paris, The Environment And Economic Growth, by Ted Temzelides, Baker Institute Rice faculty scholar and professor of economics. December 9
- Mauricio Macri, President of Argentina, by Mark P. Jones, Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies and fellow in political science. December 8
- Robust Dynamic Energy Use and Climate Change, by Xin Lin, economist, International Monetary Fund; Borghan Narajabad, economist, Federal Reserve Board; and Ted Temzelides, Baker Institute Rice faculty scholar and professor of economics. December 3
For a complete list, visit our research library.
Baker Institute Blog
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- El Chapo recaptured: Implications for the Sinaloa Cartel, by Nathan P. Jones, nonresident scholar in drug policy and Mexico studies. January 9
- El Chapo recaptured: Effect on the Peña administration, by Tony Payan, Françoise and Edward Djerejian Fellow for Mexico Studies and director, Mexico Center. January 9
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For a complete list, visit our blog.