Mahmoud Shoori, head of Eurasia Program at Center for Strategic Research (CSR) and senior fellow at IRAS sat down with IRAS for an interview about the growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and What role Iran and Russia could take to settle down the tensions in the Persian Gulf. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What opportunities the tension between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has been provided for Iran and Russia?
An opportunity lies in the energy market. There has been talk of the Gas OPEC in the past, but no serious and specific developments have happened in this regard. I think the recent events can provide opportunities to expand the gas cooperation among Iran, Russia and Qatar. These three countries, considered as the three main gas producers in the world, can have more cooperation in this field. They can also manage competitions among themselves, and act in a way that will benefit all of them, and allow the competition for gas not turn into a confrontation among them. This is in the interest of all three countries. But in the medium term, I think that it might be possible to use this opportunity to manage the Syrian crisis. In the current situation, it is possible to make the Qataris accept and be committed to some realities in Syria that they may have rejected to do so under previous conditions. There should be tripartite or quadripartite consultations among Iran, Russia, Turkey and Qatar to use the opportunity to manage the crisis in Syria.”
Despite Tehran-Moscow close cooperation in Syria, there have suspicions. Do you think that the case of Qatar could turn from potential cooperation to a challenge between Iran and Russia?
“For Russians, it is important that they do not define themselves against Saudi Arabia. There are a variety of reasons for this view. Russia, however, will not benefit from any tension created in its relations with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a rich country that can be a buyer of Russian weapons. The kind of Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with Russia can be also effective in determining oil prices in the energy market. Given its domination over certain intellectual extremist movements in the region, Saudi Arabia is a country that can cause disturbances to Russia. All this makes Russia lack a reason for creating any tension in its relationship with Saudi Arabia. But one cannot get involved in something, and not suffer its consequences.
“If Saudi Arabia assumes the type of Russian intervention in the Qatar crisis will disturb the balance to its detriment, it may move toward an escalation of tensions with Russia. Meaning there is a possibility that if the Saudis see they cannot affect the positions of Moscow by threatening or bribing Russia, they may ignore the options, and be inclined toward the escalation of tensions with Russia. But I think before that neither Russia nor Saudi Arabia will allow their relationship turn hostile. Especially this can be seen on the issues of energy and investment; the Saudis can invest in the Russian energy industries, and the Russians do not want to lose this opportunity.
“Unfortunately, given that energy markets are one of the main sources of Russian government’s revenue, Russia acts somehow greedily in some cases on these markets, and its policies in the field of energy markets may not be aligned with its major policies and strategies at the international level. An example of this is seen in the agreements reached between Russia and Iraqi Kurdistan on purchasing oil from Kurdistan and investing in its energy resources. These agreements are not consistent with the Russian policy at the regional level that one of its principles is to maintain the existing governments, and are even in conflict with this policy, and help establish a Kurdish state in the region. Therefore, it is possible that there is a contradiction between Russia’s two policies, and that shows the Russian desire to dominate the energy markets in the region and the world. Russians should give priority to one of the two, meaning to either their major political and security policies at regional and international levels or their policies in the field of energy.”
Iran sees the tension between Riyadh and Doha from ‘security’ perspective, but Russia takes its ‘interests’ into consideration. Don’t you think this discrepancy is alarming?
“Damages that Iran may suffer from the crises in the region are different from those incurred on Russia. But we should not ignore the fact that the main issue for major countries is the type of the role they play at the regional and international levels. Meaning that is true that they may have passed the stage of being worried over their national security, but they will have to fight, at a higher stage, for what is vital for them. So it is true that we act in two different phases, and in many cases we are dealing with different issues, but at the same time, Russia is concerned over not allowing an American-oriented order prevail in the region. Russians are also worried over the issue that some extremist groups and movements may be used by some governments, and jeopardize the security of countries. At the same time, there are common issues that make Iran and Russia work more together.”
The deterioration of the tensions in the Persian Gulf would be costly for countries including Iran, but Tehran defines the current tension within its interests. What Iran should do not to trap in its ambition?
“We may witness some chaos and/or a Russian-oriented order in the region instead of an American-oriented order. Certainly the Middle East is far away from achieving a stable situation and a situation in which regional powers can feel security. Until then, any incident and ambition can be dangerous. However, history has shown that when we are faced with multiple powers, a balance of power recognized by all parties is the most accessible form of establishing order. I would not say that it is the most stable and the best, but at least we can say that it is the most accessible form to achieve an order. Even within the framework of the balance of power, if there is a bipolar balance of power, of course, as theorists of international relations and realists say, it can be more durable.
“That is why if Saudi Arabia and America feel that they have the opportunity to seek hegemony, this will make the situation difficult to deal with. It is natural that countries like Iran will not allow this hegemonic ambition take shape. But on how the Saudis’ ambition can be opposed, it should be said that Qatar’s action delivered a heavy blow to the Saudi’s ambition and effort to become a hegemony in the region. It is true that at first glance this action may increase the tension, but in the medium and long term, if it is continued, it can help create the balance in the region. If the balance is created on all sides, there will be a more stable situation. Under these conditions, many regional powers probably will not need to be engaged in proxy wars, or define some areas as their own showdown areas. I think this will help us reach an order, not necessarily in a favorable situation, but an accessible order which brings with it some stability.
“On the other hand, this should not create the impression that we can become a hegemony. This is a dangerous idea as well. We must accept that no power in the Middle East can play a hegemonic role. We should accept that, at least for a trial period, a situation like that of the Concert of Great Powers in the nineteenth century should be formed in the Middle East. Even though the Concert ultimately failed to prevent the outbreak of World War I and II, such a concert at least can give a chance to regional powers to think and decide about the future in a more balanced situation. In the situation that each of the parties feel they may be struck and damaged, and under the conditions that all countries feel insecure, it is difficult to make a decision to create stability in the region. The situation should become somehow more stable.”
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