12:00 AM, September 19, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:02 PM, October 08, 2016

The growing Saudi isolation

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The changing world order is taking its toll on Salafist preacher Zakir Naik, who was otherwise not touched for decades. The recipient of the Saudi King Faisal International Prize for service to Islam in 2015 is fighting with his back to the wall in 2016. There is a simple explanation: the Saudi affiliation is showing negative results.

Globally, the approval rating for Riyadh is low. Why? Because the US has gradually distanced itself from Saudi actions in the recent past. Interests, patronised by Saudi Arabia, were tolerated worldwide because it was assumed that America kept a protective eye on all Saudi assets. That is no longer the case.

Just the other day, most US advisers involved in the Yemen operation, were withdrawn from Riyadh – as clear a vote of no confidence as any in the mindless Saudi war in the Arab world's poorest country.

Growing Saudi isolation has an ironical twist. Even arch enemy Iran has changed its policy on Saudi Arabia. That Iran would change policy will be a matter of surprise for many. It is assumed that Iran would have had just one policy from the very beginning: a policy of opposition to Riyadh. But it has never been so.

Iran's policy towards Saudi Arabia has been much more nuanced. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 introduced a bipolarity in the Muslim world. A Riyadh-Tehran rivalry was built into the situation. But Tehran never allowed one upmanship to degenerate into a conflict.

Its presumed leadership of the Muslim Ummah under assault, Riyadh frequently lashed out. There were many verbal skirmishes. But Iran's “policy” towards Saudi Arabia remained unchanged.

This “policy” was based on a very clear understanding of the Saudi establishment which consisted of two streams, one led by the king and the other by the Wahabi clergy.

To former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani must go the credit for having always insisted on one line – the government led by a pragmatic king like Abdullah was much better for Iran and the rest of the world than the fundamentalist Wahabi clergy. An internal balance of power favourable to the king was the better of the evils.

Even when King Abdullah advised the Americans to “cut the head of the snake” (Iran), Tehran persisted with the line that it was better to cope with him rather than see the clergy come on top. Inherent in this policy was a vision of a possible rapprochement with Riyadh. The biggest votary of peace with Saudi Arabia in the past four years has been Iran's Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif.

His prestige was sky high after he successfully negotiated the nuclear deal with the US. He was therefore able to extract a go ahead from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, to explore avenues for some understanding with Saudi leaders.

A realisation has dawned in Tehran that, unlike, the late King Abdullah, the present ruling clique in Riyadh is not in control of the situation. First, King Salman bin Abdulaziz is ailing and not in control of his faculties.

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef probably derives his hard line approach and proximity to the clergy from his late father, Interior Minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, who was responsible for rolling tanks and APCs along the 37 kms causeway linking the Kingdom and Bahrain to quell the popular Shia uprising against the Sunni rulers in Manama.

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who is actually calling the shots in the Kingdom, possibly does not have the links with the clergy that his cousin, the Crown Prince has. In the midst of this ambiguity, the clergy is becoming powerful.

Internal turbulence is being managed by external wars, as in Yemen, or persisting with the Syrian civil war with an aim to oust President Bashar al Assad. Iranians, and others, have now given up on keeping reasonable relations with the government in Riyadh to keep down the clergy. Gloves in Tehran are off because an assessment has been made that the clergy is now in a decision making position. A shrill battle cry is on the amplifiers directly against Wahabism.

Ayatollah Khamenei has seldom used such invective. Recalling last year's Haj stampede in which 2000 pilgrims including 472 Iranians were crushed to death, he exploded: “The heartless and murderous Saudis locked up the injured with the dead in containers – instead of providing medical treatment or atleast quenching their thirst, they murdered them.”

It is possible to attribute Khamenei's outburst to the Saudi Grand Mufti's statement against Shia's: “they are not Muslims.” 

What confirms an altered Iranian policy against Riyadh is foreign Minister Javad Zarif's very measured op-ed piece in the New York Times. He has finally thrown in the towel. Gloves are now truly off. It is building up to a showdown at a critical juncture. The offensive against the IS in Mosul is in the process of revealing many fault lines. The enthusiasm of those poised for an attack on Iraq's second biggest city, has to be seen against those who would like their “assets” holed up in Mosul to be protected. Many reputations are on the line.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator and interviewer.

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