By James M. Dorsey
Saudi plans to become a major gas exporter within a decade raise questions about what the real goal of the kingdom’s policy, and by extension that of the United States, is towards Iran.
Officially both Saudi Arabia and the US, which last year withdrew from the 2015 international accord that curbs the Islamic republic’s nuclear program and imposed harsh economic sanctions, are demanding a change of Iran’s regional and defense policies rather than of its regime.
Yet, statements in recent years by some Saudi leaders and US officials as well a string of declarations at the recent US-sponsored Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Stability in the Middle East in Warsaw by officials of the Trump administration as well as Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain suggested that regime change was on their radar.
President Donald J. Trump’s hard-line national security advisor John Bolton, a past advocate of regime change and a covert war to destabilize Iran, concluded an outline on the White House’s official Twitter account of Washington’s long list of grievances and accusations levelled at Iranian leaders by addressing supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, directly: “I don’t think you’ll have too many more anniversaries,” Mr. Bolton said as Iran celebrated the 40th anniversary of its Islamic revolution.
The notion that the real goal of Saudi and US policy is regime change prompted by the sanctions and a destabilization campaign that would foster unrest among Iran’s ethnic minorities was bolstered by multiple indicators.
These include statements of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and Mr. Bolton before he became Mr. Trump’s advisor; a flow of funds from the kingdom to militant, ultra-conservative anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian madrassas or religious seminaries that dot the Iranian border in the troubled Pakistani province of Balochistan; US and Saudi support for an exile Iranian group that demands regime change in Tehran; and a string of recent attacks inside Iran.
With Saudi Arabia, however, announcing that it will invest US$150 billion to enable it to export three billion cubic metres of gas a year by 2030, suggests that imminent regime change may not be in the kingdom’s immediate interest.
Viewed through the lens of the timeline of Saudi Arabia’s gas plans, the kingdom is likely to benefit more from an Iran that is isolated and weakened for years to come to give the Saudis the time to get up to speed on gas rather than an Iran that under a new more accommodating government returns to the international fold. A potential destabilization campaign that is low-level and intermittent but not regime threatening would serve that purpose.
It would also extend the window of opportunity on which Saudi Arabia relies to assert regional leadership. That window of opportunity exists as long as the obvious regional powers – Iran, Turkey and Egypt – are in various degrees of disrepair. Punitive economic sanctions, international isolation and domestic turmoil serve to keep Iran weak and unable to leverage its assets.
The emergence of Saudi gas plans appears to put Saudi strategy towards Iran at cross purposes. If Saudi Arabia’s gas-driven interest is prolonged containment of Iran, operations at the Indian-backed Arabian Sea port of Chabahar were believed to have given the effort to achieve a change of Tehran’s regional and defense policy, if not its regime, a sense of urgency.
Pakistani militants reported the flow of Saudi funds to Baloch madrassas at the time that a government-backed Saudi think-tank, the International Institute of Iranian Studies, argued in a study that Chabahar, a mere 70 kilometres up the coast from the Chinese-backed Pakistani port of Gwadar posed “a direct threat to the Arab Gulf states” that called for “immediate counter measures.”
Written by Mohammed Hassan Husseinbor, identified as an Iranian political researcher, the study warned that Chabahar posed a threat because it would enable Iran to increase its market share in India for its oil exports at the expense of Saudi Arabia, raise foreign investment in the Islamic republic, increase government revenues, and allow Iran to project power in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
Pakistani analysts expect around US$5 billion in Afghan trade to flow through Chabahar after India in December started handling the port’s operations. It could also further strain ties with Pakistan that accuses India of fomenting nationalist unrest in Balochistan. India and Pakistan are on the brink of a potentially escalating military conflict over Kashmir.
The perceived threat of Chabahar, however, pales against the opportunity that Saudi Arabia’s ability to be a major gas exporter would open up.
In a study published in 2015, energy scholar Micha’el Tanchum suggested that it would be gas supplies from Iran and Turkmenistan, two Caspian Sea states, rather than Saudi oil that would determine which way Eurasia’s future energy architecture tilts: China, the world’s third largest LNG importer, or Europe.
With 24.6 billion cubic metres potentially available for annual piped exports beyond its current supply commitments, Iran, unfettered by sanctions and with no Saudi competition, could emerge as Eurasia’s swing producer, which would significantly enhance its regional clout.
Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s resignation in recent days, had it been accepted by President Hasan Rouhani, would have amounted to a victory for hardliners and served the interest of the Saudis and their allies.
“Zarif went. We are rid of him,” Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu gloated prematurely on his Farsi-language Twitter account.
The departure of Mr. Zarif, a suave, US-educated moderate who was Iran’s main negotiator of the nuclear accord, would have enhanced the quest of Saudi Arabia and its allies even if their timelines for a change of Iranian policies, if not of the regime, differ.
His continued tenure as foreign minister is likely to encourage Europe, China and Russia in their efforts to salvage the nuclear deal but little to change Saudi or US long-term strategy.
Tweeted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: Zarif “and @HassanRouhani are just front men for a corrupt religious mafia. We know @khamenei_ir makes all final decisions. Our policy is unchanged—the regime must behave like a normal country and respect its people.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast.