The starting point for any policy that the new crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, adopts toward the Islamic Republic of Iran is to understand two basic facts. First, the Iranian regime continues to be the most serious threat to regional security in the Middle East and the major state sponsor of terrorism. Second, the Iranian people continue to be the most serious threat to the Islamic regime and the only real hope for a fundamental change in Iran.
If Mohammed bin Salman adopts the right policies in his dealings with the Islamic regime, not only will he go down in history as the leader who solved the “Iran Problem,” he will also usher in a new economic dynamic within the broader Middle East. In view of his friendship with President Trump, any new and bold approach by Mohammed bin Salman toward the Islamic regime in Tehran will no doubt have the full support of the president and his entire national security team.
To date Saudi policy toward Iran has not produced the results that Riyadh had hoped would either appease the mullahs or contain the bad behavior of the regime in Tehran. For example, the latest policy decision by Saudi Arabia to confront the Iranian regime by war through proxy in Yemen has not deterred the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The conflict in Yemen is fast becoming a quagmire for Riyadh. According to some estimates, the Saudi effort to confront Iran in Yemen is costing the kingdom around $600 million per month. After spending billions of dollars, Saudi Arabia is not close to thwarting the designs of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to build a beachhead on the Arabian Peninsula by supporting his Houthi allies.
Indeed, the Saudi narrative against the Iranian regime, eloquently enunciated by Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubair, captures the essence of Tehran’s dangerous behavior in places like Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and Lebanon, but it does not address the fundamental underlying challenge: how to deal with a regime that is the mortal enemy of Saudi Arabia.
The overarching policy that Mohammed bin Salman should seriously consider is to adopt a soft-power approach to solving his Iran dilemma. This policy starts by drawing a clear distinction between the people of Iran and their rulers. The first step that Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince can take is to deliver an address to the Iranian people in which he lays out his vision for a peaceful and friendly relation with people of Iran. In this address, Mohammed bin Salman can touch upon the rich history of Iran, its unique culture and heritage, and end by extending his hand of friendship to his natural allies — the people of Iran.
The concrete steps the young crown prince may wish to consider following his address to the Iranian people are as follows: First, he can announce the creation of a fund to pay for the pilgrimage of elderly Iranians to Mecca and Medina. For the average Iranian whose per-capita gross national product has shrunk since the overthrow of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, making the obligatory visit to Islam’s holiest sites has become a financial burden. Mohammed bin Salman can endear himself to millions of Iranians through this act of charity.
Second, as a young leader with a keen interest in technology, Mohammed bin Salman can announce the creation of a Saudi-Iran Tech Bridge, whereby Iranian start-ups (both inside and outside Iran) with promising technologies in areas of interest to Saudi Arabia, such as water desalination and multi-junction solar cells, can be funded. The young people of Iran have been the major victims of the reign of terror imposed on them by the Islamic regime. Their creativity can once again be tapped into with this bold initiative from Saudi Arabia’s tech-savvy crown prince.
Third, Mohammed bin Salman can commission a study titled “A Blueprint for the Reconstruction of Iran” in which a well-thought-out road map is presented to the people of Iran as to what their country could look like should they become free of their tormentors. In fact, this blueprint can lay out an investment strategy for Gulf Cooperation Council countries to invest in Iran’s underdeveloped economy. The underlying message to the people of Iran is clear: Saudi Arabia and its wealthy neighbors can be bridge builders to a better future as opposed to the regime’s total mismanagement of Iran’s economy.
Before assuming his position as crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman outlined his Vision 2030 for the people of his country. An inclusive, dynamic, forward-looking and tolerant society is what the young crown prince wants for his people. If Mohammed bin Salman does a course correction as it concerns Saudi Arabia’s policy toward Iran and embraces a soft-power approach toward the people of Iran, he will not only realize the lofty ambition of Vision 2030 but he will also go down in history as the leader who ushered in a renaissance for the people of the Middle East.
During his trip to Riyadh, President Trump touted the “beautiful weapons” American companies will be selling to Saudi Arabia to deter the Iranian regime’s aggression. I am certain that Mohammed bin Salman would agree that a free and prosperous Iran, at peace with Saudi Arabia, would be more beautiful.
• S. Rob Sobhani is CEO of Caspian Group Holdings.