OPEC reportedly overcame this impasse last week, although Iran did not alter its position regarding ongoing increases in oil output. Quite the contrary, recent reports have placed Iran’s long-term target output even higher than the initial figure of four million barrels per day that the Islamic claimed as its pre-sanctions level. Tehran continues to insist upon being able to at least re-claim such levels before participating in any collective agreement. And last week’s supposed breakthrough came after Saudi Arabia backed down on this point, allowing Iran to be exempted from an OPEC output freeze, along with fellow member states Libya and Nigeria.
The rest of the OPEC members seek to collectively reduce output by up to 700,000 barrels per day, and the Istanbul meeting will aim to codify Russia’s participation in the same scheme. But despite the forward progress on this particular issue, Iran’s continued intransigence suggests that the meetings do not represent much hope for improved relations between the Saudi Arabia and Iran, two major regional rivals. In fact, several reports since last week’s meeting have underscored the continuance of severe tensions.
This week, Saudi Arabia began large-scale military exercises in the Persian Gulf, and the Islamic Republic of Iran responded by threatening the Saudis against getting too close to Iranian territory, and accusing them of fostering instability. Then, Stars and Stripes reported on Thursday that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had further added to the discord, with Quds Force commander General Qassem Suleimani making speculative statements about the Saudi royal family.
Of the Saudi defense minister, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Suleimani said “he is very impatient and might kill his king.” Although Stars and Stripes notes that there was no immediate reaction in Saudi state media, it also concludes that Suleimani’s suggestion of regicide can be expected to stoke anger among the Saudis, who were deeply affected by the assassination of King Faisal by his nephew in 1975.
Suleimani’s comments were presumably made with the express purpose of soliciting an angry response. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been in a war of words for some time, with each country’s state media exchanging propaganda about each other’s involvement in regional sectarian conflicts, and about such things as last year’s deadly stampede during the hajj, which Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei used as grounds to challenge Saudi stewardship of Muslim holy sites.
But Iran’s propaganda statements have been directed not only against Saudi Arabia itself, but also against its Gulf Arab allies and fellow OPEC member states. In one example of this, Eurasia Review noted on Thursday that Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi had accused the United Arab Emirates of supporting radicals and destabilizing forces in the region.
Interestingly, these remarks came less than a week after rockets fired by Iran-backed rebels in Yemen struck a UAE auxiliary ship off that country’s coast. The Shiite rebels known as Houthis sparked a civil war in Yemen last year in an effort to oust the elected and Western-backed President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi. Although Tehran denies supporting the rebels, it is generally understood that the IRGC has been providing extensive support, as partly evidenced by an Iranian ship that was repelled by US naval forces last year while openly carrying weapons in the direction of Yemen.
After months of war, Saudi Arabia took leadership of an Arab coalition with the intention of counteracting Iranian influence in the conflict on the Arabian Peninsula. This proxy war has, of course, become a major contributor to the overall tensions between the Saudis and Iranians. And so too has their backing of opposing factions in the Syrian Civil War. But Iranian animosity toward Arab rivals dates back much further than that. The UAE in particular has for years been vying with Iran for three Persian Gulf islands that both claim to own.
In the midst of all these tensions, it seems clear that next week’s meeting will not be much of an opportunity for improvement in Arab-Persian relations. Instead, from Iran’s standpoint, the more important factors in that meeting will be the participation of Russia and the meeting’s location in Turkey. Both of these are countries to which Iran has been growing increasingly close, and these sorts of alliances could provide Iran with greater leverage in defying both Arab and Western interests.
In this sense, the meeting once again calls attention to the prospects for the formation of an Asian bloc of nations that might represent a unified front against the US and its closest allies. Such a bloc would involve closer Iranian relations not only with Russia but also with China. And on Thursday, an article appeared at Forbes that reaffirmed that both these trends are ongoing.
The article noted that China and Russia have both shown interest in cooperating with Iran over nuclear development in the wake of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It also pointed out that Iranian and Russia interests in Syria are increasingly convergent, leading on the one hand to their mutual confrontation of ISIS but also to the strengthening of mutual alliances with other entities including the Taliban and Syria’s Assad regime itself. Similarly, Forbes observes that Russia’s relationship with Turkey has been taking the same trajectory as Iran’s formerly antagonistic relationship with Turkey. Although Forbes argues that these two trends could work against each other, it is also easy to see how the pursuit of similar alliances is leading to a more tight-knit network of nations and non-state actors in Asia, which could over time come to appear more monolithic.