Saudi Arabia Blocks Waterways, Airspace as Iran’s Regional Presence Continues to Grow

This is the latest indication of a deepening economic conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia as the former works to regain market share lost during the era of economic sanctions imposed on the Iranian nuclear program. The influx of Iranian oil threatens to further depress global oil prices that have eaten into the profits of oil exporting countries for many months. Saudi Arabia is leading efforts to finalize an agreement among OPEC and some non-OPEC countries including Russia to freeze or cut output in order to stabilize prices.

This plan will be further discusses in a meeting scheduled to take place on April 17 in Doha. But it is already threatened by Saudi insistence that all parties, including Iran, sign onto the freeze. This is something that the Iranians have indicated they will not do; and indeed Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh has declared that his country will produce oil at the highest possible level.

The Iranian-Saudi discord over this issue presumably has its roots in the longstanding and much more general conflict between the two leading Middle Eastern powers. Consequently, the deteriorating prospects for economic cooperation may point the way to similarly diminished prospects for reconciliation in other areas.

Already, the National Council of Resistance of Iran has reported that Saudi Arabia also barred Iran’s commercial airline Mahan Air from passing through Saudi airspace.

Riyadh justified the ban with vague reference to airline safety violations. But it is just as likely that it is at least in part a punitive measure, following upon the severing of diplomatic relations between the two countries after Iranian mobs burned the Saudi embassy and consulate in January.

Furthermore, the ban effectively mirrors persistent American-led sanctions on Mahan Air stemming from accusations that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has used it to secretly transfer weapons and personnel to foreign militias and terrorist groups like those fighting on behalf of Syrian dictator and Iran ally Bashar al-Assad.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have been notably concerned about the increase in Iranian power and influence in the broader region in the aftermath of the July 14 nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers. This was emphasized once again on Monday in an editorial that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, written by Yousef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States. In it he stated that despite a year’s worth of Western efforts at outreach, “the Iran we have long known—hostile, expansionist, violent—is alive and well, and as dangerous as ever.”

The architects of the Iran nuclear deal – chiefly the Obama administration – have variously made efforts to paint a different picture, portraying the deal as a success not just by virtue of its constraints on the Iranian nuclear program but also by virtue of its encouragement of moderation and a globally cooperative mindset with the regime.

On Monday, the Associated Press reported upon one of the latest efforts at such an optimistic portrayal. That is, the White House now claims that in the wake of international negotiations and a tentative ceasefire among non-ISIL combatants in the Syrian Civil War, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is scaling back its presence in the conflict, thereby putting pressure on the Assad regime to decrease his dependence on foreign patrons.

But the AP emphasizes that a number of other commentators on the situation disagree, including several Iranian officials who have declared that IRGC deployments are ongoing, or even increasing. Global security analysts have tended to conclude that Iran has always had designs for a permanent foothold on the shores of the Mediterranean, and that it is unlikely to scale back its direct presence or its control over Shiite militias in Syria unless it is compelled to do so.

Given how much the Obama administration has apparently been contradicted on this latest claim, the White House’s critics are sure to find more fuel for their accusations that the administration is maintaining a policy of “appeasement.” This concern was newly expressed on Monday in an editorial in the Al Arabiya, which made the case that by giving more concessions to Iran or withdrawing scrutiny of its activities in Syria and elsewhere, the West would only encourage Tehran to perceive weakness and demand more.

But notwithstanding the Gulf Arab nations’ concerns about ascendant Iranian power, the West has certainly not yet ceased to confront at least some Iranian provocations and illicit activities. This fact was highlighted, for instance, by Fox News when it reported on Monday that a cache of weapons had been seized which was believed to be in transit from Iran to the Houthi rebels fighting in Yemen.

The US Navy seized the shipment, which consisted of thousands of weapons including AK-47 assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades. US military officials noted that this seizure in the Arabian Sea was the third of its kind in less than two months, a fact that seems to point both to the continued expansion of Iranian influence and to the confrontation of that influence.

Meanwhile, although the Obama administration has come under fire for apparently moving to grant Iran limited access to the US dollar, it is also the case that the US government continues to enforce non-nuclear economic sanctions and take legal action against persons known to have been responsible for prior illicit dealings with the Islamic Republic.

The Associated Press reported on Monday that a Singapore man was scheduled to appear in court in the US that day after having been extradited for his provision of components that were used in Iranian-made improvised explosive devices, which were used by Iraqi militants.