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The Saudi-Iran Conflict

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(August 6, 2016)

Theoretical Framework

Neorealism: The term neorealism was coined in 1979 by Kenneth Waltz whose entire career focused on developing the realism theory. Born in 1924, Waltz set out to provide a better understanding of international relations as he believed that there the previous international relation theories such as classical realism were flawed. He did this by introducing the concept of neorealism. Having served in the Second World War, Waltz went ahead and received his bachelor’s degree in economics, and later, a graduate degree in political science from the University of Columbia. In 1975, his illustrious teaching career kicked off, teaching in many American Universities including Columbia and Berkeley, whereby in 1987 and 1988, he became the American Political Science Association’s president. According to Martin (2013), Kenneth Waltz was the 1999 James Madison Award recipient.

In a bid to comprehend how nations make decisions, behave and why they strive to remain in power, it is imperative to understand the critical roles and the effect of international players as well as the general international community. The Neorealism theory, which is also known as structural realism, is the most common theory used in international relations today as it offers the better understanding of the behavior of nations based on the effect of power (Powell, 1994). The theory focuses on the effects of the structures in place in the international arena, especially when explaining the results of international politics, hence the alternative reference as structural realism. Waltz explains that while structural realism might not explain every facet of international relations, it, in fact, explains certain important aspects. Waltz’s theory suggests that nations are likely to stay in power if they choose to conduct their affairs within the scope of international arrays laid out by the international constructions that provide guidelines on how nations should behave.

Unlike classical realists who support that human nature is the main driving force behind nations seeking power, structural realists are of the belief that human nature has only a slight bearing towards this achievement. According to the structural realism theory, the only motivator towards nations seeking power is the structure of the international system. Much like every theory, neorealism claims its domain, and it pokes at the biggest issues that affect nations. Such matters: future, present and past include the avoidance of war, power seeking, security competition, power balancing, the formation of alliances, arms races and the like.

To remove all doubt whether another state might attack another weaker nation, then the presence of a higher authoritative power that oversees the rest of the great powers and provides security assurance is of great importance. Such doubts often serve as motivators to other nations to seek their place by strengthening their military might in readiness of possible future attacks. As a result of nations struggling to achieve their desired level of power while at the same time being wary of unknown attacks, they often find themselves trapped in a power competition that would be aimed at guaranteeing their survival. On the other hand, inaccurate information might not only mislead states to forming wrongful strategies that might not benefit the nation but also prove to be harmful. Understanding the intentions of other states might turn out to be difficult especially when determining if a state would be willing to change its power structure or whether they are satisfied with the status quo. Among states that are in the race for power, neorealists fail to point out the cultural differences or the types of regimes in place among the aspects of the neorealist theory.

Power is the defining factor that differentiates states even though the neorealist theory indicates that there should be equality among states because they are expected to be alike in more aspects than power. Therefore, the type of government in place does not have much effect on the way it relates with other nations, and its power can be measured either by its latent power or via its material capabilities. Material capabilities often refer to the nation’s wealth as well as its population while latent power relates to the country’s military might. As a result, both of these types of power clearly indicate that war is not the only way a nation can acquire power. A country’s share of global wealth, as well as a rising level of population, is one of the types of power that a nation might possess (Mearsheimer, 2006). Warring nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia find themselves with a constant need to acquire more power aimed at protecting their citizens from the rival state. With this fact, Iran’s possibility of acquiring nuclear weaponry places the nation in a more powerful position than its rival nation Saudi Arabia, although neorealists argue that military might is not the only true measure of a nation’s power. Therefore, whether or not neorealism is viewed as successful in explaining such a phenomenon in an international relations setting goes a long way to establishing whether it is a suitable theory/tool for analyzing an affair such as the Iran-Saudi conflict.

There are five assumptions through which states compete for power, and although individually they are not enough motivators, combined, they provide the much-needed fuel in the international setting for countries to seek power. The assumptions include powerful military capabilities, anarchy, and rationality, the unpredictability of other states’ intentions and the survival of the state. Offensive military capabilities usually refer to the type of power that allows nations to pose as threats to their neighboring countries. Additionally, anarchy, in this case, does not refer to chaos but the decentralization of power since there is no higher authority that governs states beyond their individual governments. Under anarchy, the necessary point to understand is that every state, whether large or small operates on its own without having to face recourse from a higher authority. Concerning survival, a state’s protection of its local political order should take precedence because the state’s survival should come first for all governments and through this, sound strategies can be created and maintained to ensure this survival. Survival in this case usually refers to security and states do as much as is needed to ensure the security of the nation because, without it, all other goals and objectives would become seemingly impossible to achieve. Survival, therefore, becomes the top priority for all nations in their bid to attain their objectives; whether of power, wealth, or even both. Although there are limits to whichever theory is chosen to explain certain cases, the structural realism approach still has more explanatory power regarding the prominence of states in their interactions on the global level. It also provides sufficient explanation for the continued manipulation and abuse of both international institutions and international law. Given that these institutions play an important role in international relations means that neorealism is a valuable tool for analyzing certain aspects of the current global affairs, therefore must not be entirely disregarded.

Idealism in International Relations

Idealism refers to the ethical progression of international relations. According to international relations standards, “An idealist in this sense is one who places before himself in private or public affairs as attainable a goal which other citizens, perhaps equal moral do not believe to be so attainable” (smith, 1923, p.2). Idealism supports the concept that there is a possibility of creating and maintaining a political system that is based on morality. Idealism, therefore, is an optimistic doctrine seeking to create a more harmonious and cosmopolitan world by transcending international anarchy. Therefore, the negative human instincts can either be silenced or ignored completely to promote the idea of creating and maintaining both international and national standard policies of conduct to achieve wealth, justice and collaboration in the world. Idealists explain that war is not necessarily considered in the world we live today because people understand that the cost of war far outweighs the benefits (Brown, 1992). Idealism, otherwise known as Wilsonianism developed as an alternative political philosophy towards the end of World War 1 whereby nations became more concerned about protecting nations from war as well as the avoidance of conflict in the international scene.

According to Russet (1994), idealism set out to find both local and international institutions that would provide the necessary protection for democracy. This can be attained trough the incorporation of foreign policy makers who consider the opinion of individual states in the formulation and implementation of policies. This can be better understood as having in place foreign policies that reflect the views of democratic nations (Long & Wilson, 1995). Idealists use reasoning to keep sinister forces at bay as well as overcome prejudice through their optimistic policies that are aimed at accomplishing a multicultural, international arena where all nations can be treated with equal respect. The global public can be better empowered through their engagement in foreign policy, education as well as democracy in their respective states.

Idealism supports the world public opinion can be greatly influenced by the UN which has a vital role to play on the international front. Regardless of the difference in interests among states, idealism recognizes the shared interest of well-being among the world’s population. Although people do not share the same culture or values, we all seem to share the same requirements for prosperity, respect, security and acknowledgment (Wilson, 2011). This theory is manifesting itself in both Iran and Saudi Arabia whereas, in the Palestinian conflict, there is evidence that public opinion is valued and thus incorporated in several foreign policies. In both warring nations, foreign policy relies heavily on the values dictated by their religion.

Soft Power: The soft power theory focuses on the ability to make individuals desire to achieve goals wanted by a different set of people. In simpler terms, this theory focuses on getting people to desire the same outcomes as you (Nye, 2004, p. 5). Joseph Nye coined ‘Soft Power’ in his 1990 book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power but later extended it in 2011 where he wrote “When one country gets other countries to want what it wants might be called co-option or soft power in contrast with the command or hard power of ordering others to do what it wants” (Nye, 2011, p. 20-21). Such an achievement is attained by the act of making the goal attractive instead of coercing people to like it. Just as the definition of soft power has been developing, power itself seems to have been evolving for a long time. The early 1960s power scholars who studied the various layers of power included Dahl (1961) who focused on how power was exercised through coercion but only as a reaction. Bachrach and Baratz (1962) identified power’s second face which is agenda setting. They also examined the influence of national power within targeted communities whereby they focused on variables that were often ignored or taken lightly by power literature.

Conflict often characterizes behavioral change, but soft power minimizes the possibility of conflict by using persuasion techniques and not brute force to get the desired result. The defining aspect of soft power is that it is noncoercive, and its currency is foreign policies, culture, and political values. Nye continued to explain that ‘the best propaganda is not propaganda’ (Nye, 2011) whereby he clarified by saying that credibility is the scarcest resource during the information age. Nye, however, stresses the fact that soft power is not always used for good but rather it can be misused, for example by using propaganda to persuade people (Nye, 2011). Secondly, soft power is classified as a type of power by being the clear opposite of hard power which involves the use of brute force such as military enforcement. Nye continues to classify the soft powers of a state in three categories. The first is the state’s cultures which are usually the places that are considered attractive and also valuable. The second is the standards set by the state whenever the state is being represented either locally or internationally. The third and final category are the morality as well as the legitimacy of the country’s foreign policy (Nye, 2011). Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have Holy places that are considered attractive by people from either nation, and the perfect example is the minority Saudi Shiites who continuously admire Iran for their policies as they are a reflection of the beliefs of their religion.

Soft power, according to Nye is a tool that can sometimes be more challenging to exercise mainly because the nations’ resources are not entirely under the control of the state while soft power is not directly involved in the formatting of a state’s policies (Nye, 2004). Both of these reasons prolong the effectiveness of soft power influence which in many cases might take years to exercise. It is important to understand that soft power is not normative, but is descriptive which supports the notion that soft power can as well be exploited for evil purposes. Stalin and Hitler used soft power to achieve their goals which were highlighted by deaths of millions of people. According to Nye, in terms of international relations, soft power cannot be classified as type of liberalism or idealism because it questions the definition of realism, making it a method of goals and power achievement (Nye, 2011).

Research Gap:

It is the compilation of previously recorded data that one can identify limits on the available studies regarding the Saudi-Iranian conflict of hegemony. As most of the previous research dealt mainly on the reach of power sought by each country as well as the tools incorporated, researchers have failed to find sufficient literature that supports conflict resolution, especially in this case. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, as well as Hussein Amir-Abdollahian, the Deputy Foreign Minister were quoted to be aiding in the preparations for the Geneva Talks. As such, the new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani seems to be taking a different approach to his country’s foreign policy by agreeing to negotiate with the UN. However, the execution of Sheikh Nimr, the end of formal diplomatic relations as well as he storming of the Saudi Embassy in Iran are indicators of a more dangerous chapter in the conflict of this region.

Further strain on the conflict between Saudi and Iran in their bid to gain power was placed when in January 2016, Adel Al-Jabari, the Saudi Foreign Minister wrote an op-ed featured in the New York Times whereby he referred to Iran as a sponsor of terrorism. The statement from the foreign minister was inaccurate, to say the least primarily because the 19 hijackers who executed the single most devastating terrorist attacks on the U.S had 15 of its members originating from Saudi Arabia. Also, Osama Bin Laden, the founder of AL-Qaeda was a member of the prominent Bin Laden family in Saudi Arabia. The accusations back and forth between these two countries about their national and international policies continue to place both states in positions where the resolution for this conflict seems near-impossible to achieve.

In conclusion, the Saudi-Iran conflict has been looked into from several angles by scholars in the international relations and foreign policy field, yet this case requires thorough scrutiny and consistent use of skills of conflict resolution analysis in order to comprehend the situation. However, there are positive developments happening in the region which continues to unfold especially in the Iranian foreign policies. Relations with the West regarding the nuclear weapons program are working out for Iran which would benefit the nation and its citizens as the first mandate of the government is to provide for its citizens. Recommendations have continuously been providing possible solutions to ending the conflict but time, and again, they have either been ignored or denied. For instance, both nations could agree to curtail their involvement in regional conflicts. For example, Saudi Arabia’s perspective that Iran would become a regional hegemon and its implementations of policies to stop this makes other nations afraid of Iran. However, in my opinion, reciprocity is the key to ending the conflict in this region whereby both nations take genuine positive steps towards ending this conflict. Since both states are engaged in a cycle of escalation with no possibility of a military solution, embracing crisis management techniques would be among the first steps towards the ending of a rivalry that has cost both nations dearly. .


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