Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leader of the revolution who succeeded Khomeni, said shortly after the attack on the British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie that “the black arrow of death” had been shot and was “on its way to its goal.” At the same time, he can also show diplomatic fluency in his statements. For example, in 2013, when it came to negotiating the nuclear agreement with the hated US and other countries. He coined the term “heroic flexibility”; it was a cheap paraphrase of the fact that Tehran can ruthlessly break its own nationalist and Islamist principles in order to protect its interests in real political terms. Now Khamenei has set yet another example of the regime’s flexibility: he once again used the term “heroic flexibility” to his country’s diplomats to praise Tehran’s recent rapprochement with arch-enemy Saudi Arabia. The embassies in both countries reopened a month ago after seven years of abstinence.
The two states have been competing for political and religious dominance in the Middle East for decades. Their current rapprochement is likely to change the balance of power in the region. Shia Iran has been largely isolated politically and economically since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. One of the counterweights to the theocratic state was Sunni Saudi Arabia, neighbor across the Persian Gulf, custodian of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, and close ally of the United States.
The US are slowly but surely withdrawing from the region, first militarily from Iraq and Afghanistan, now also politically in relation to states such as Saudi Arabia. Washington has long focused on the Far East and the emerging super power China. This creates a geopolitical vacuum in the MENA region, into which China is increasingly pushing.
Tehran and Riyadh have been waging proxy wars for years: in Lebanon and in Syria, in Yemen. The conflict with Syria and Lebanon, where Iran exerts massive influence, will lose its explosiveness for Saudi Arabia once the Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad is finally re-established among the Arab rulers. Despite ongoing fighting, Assad has already won the civil war that began in 2012 during the “Arab Spring”. And this despite the fact that the Saudis and the Turks had strengthened the rebels and the US had backed the support. The Arab League recently rehabilitated the blood-spattered warlord from Damascus and reinstated him in the important coalition of Arab states. Bilateral reconciliation with states like Egypt is likely to follow. Ayatollah Khamenei recently said about the possibility of talks with Egypt, who is also one of the long-standing enemies of the Islamic Republic: “We have no reservations.” Something is even moving in the civil war in Yemen. According to Riyadh, the plagued country is no more than the Saudi backyard. Iran supports the Shiite Houthi rebels, derided as barefoot warriors, with so much money and weapons that the rebels have been able to control large parts of the country for years. A military coalition led by Riyadh has not managed to drive the Houthis out of the capital Sanaa, despite a bombing campaign that took no account of civilians.
Although the conflict is cooling, Washington claims that Tehran continues to supply arms to the Houthis. In principle, however, the Saudis and the Iranians are interested in an end to the fighting: Riyadh, because the state-of-the-art armed forces have proven incapable. In a military conflict with the populous and well-armed Iran, they would hardly have stood a chance on their own. And they want and can only rely on the protection of the US to a limited extent. The US government recently commented sourly on the signs of relaxation in the Gulf: “We welcome any diplomatic rapprochement. And if this should lead to an end to malicious Iranian activities in the region, we will of course support it.” For Tehran, whose country has been groaning economically under the weight of various sanctions for years, the inner-Islamic rapprochement with US partner Saudi Arabia is opening doors. With the political-military cooperation with Russia, which is rapidly developing at the same time, and the relatively good relations with China and Turkey, the Islamic Republic, despite all the sanctions, seems to be a little further out of the functioning isolation by the US and Europe, which is in any case globally never watertight to be able to bend out. This is not good news for Israel and the US, which want to contain Iran and could never accept it as a new nuclear power.
All publishing rights and copyrights reserved to MENA Research and Study Center.