Saudi-Iranian Relationship: Rapprochement on the Way

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Lubna Syed

An historic invitation came on 13th May 2014, from Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal to his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif, in which he offered him to visit Saudi Arabia. This offer came during US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and US Secretary of State, John Kerry’s visit to Riyadh.
US Secretary of State, John Kerry stated in Washington that the US has no role behind this invitation but we will encourage and welcome this. The background of this invitation is based on the ouster of 300 rebels from Homs (Syria) in May 2014, which has given stability to Assad regime in Syria. At present, Assad has confronted successfully the predictions of his ouster after an evacuation deal between rebels and his government and would survive at least for some time as the international community has divided on medium of solution to end the Middle East crisis. However, US will keep pressurizing Assad regime to hand over biological weapons to UN. It is seemingly that US has shifted away its regime change policy. Now international community has other locus of focus i.e. pursuit of nuclear deal with Iran in Vienna and visit of Iranian Foreign Minister to Saudi Arabia as on Wednesday 14th May 2014, a day right after Saudi invitation, Iran has welcomed this gesture from Saudi Arabia and has given its consent towards negotiations.
This all has turned the balance of power in favor of Iran. Recently on 11th May, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Iran to discuss Pak-Iran Gas Pipeline project. However Pakistan has problems of paucity of funds and international donors are reluctant because of US pressure on funding to construct its part of pipeline. This all is a part of carrot and stick policy of US for Iran. Moreover, the visible US-Israeli rift is adding fuel to fire. Israel is a US proxy and a major watchdog in Middle East to pursue its interest and creating a balance of power in oil enriched region but backdoor disagreements are emerging between them.
Recently, on 13th May 2014, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud condemned Israeli activities in occupied areas of Jerusalem too. On other side, Israel is dependent on US aid and diplomatic support in UN. In 2012, during US presidential elections, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu put his weight into support of Mitt Romany, a presidential rival to Obama and was banged for interfering in US internal affairs. On Obama’s speech in which he mentioned current geography of Israel also angered Netanyahu because in his speech, Obama referred that Israel has drawn its present boundaries in 1967 which are not based on peace but on repeated wars. No US president was courageous enough to afford wrath of Israeli lobby as Gallup polls indicates that 67% American citizens’ sympathies are with Israel. In retaliation, Israel took an annoying position on Ukraine against US when Netanyahu posed neutral on Russian annexation of Crimea. In this scenario, US wants to adopt some diplomatic steps to handle the controversy of Middle East.
Iran appeared on Wednesday 14th May 2014, to welcome the invitation of Saudi Arabia, yet not shared plans to visit. The Iranian Foreign Minister announced that Iran did not receive any written invitation from Riyadh. But stated further that Iran has a ‘great appetite to resolve regional issues, remove misunderstanding and promote bilateral ties.’ For a written invitation Saudi Arabia wants to secure some sort of concession. Several common areas of a possible agreement are visible enough for both states. One is Lebanon which is facing a crisis in selection over its new president. Saudi ambassador to Lebanon has returned to host country after a long time and has joined the negotiation for a consensus candidate for Lebanon’s presidency. Another area of mutual work can be Israel-Palestine conflict.
Iran, in recent past has visited Oman and UAE for improving its ties with neighboring Sunni states. But Iran and Saudi Arabia, both states have strong allegations about each other. Iran is angered at Saudi Arabia’s support in past to back Iraq in its eight years war with Iran and further charged to crush Shiite protestors in Bahrain and interference in Syria and Lebanon while Saudi Arabia accused Iran for supporting Shiite uprising in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and even in Eastern province of Saudi Arabia. Moreover, its exclusion from the P5 +1 group (UK, US, Germany, France, Russia, and China) to talk with Iran over its nuclear program is further a matter of tension for Riyadh.
In past, on August 2012, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia invited the then Iranian President Ahmedinejad to attend an emergency summit on Syria, of the OIC. Both leaders sat together at the summit although result remained passive. On arrival of new Iranian president, Hassan Rohani Saudi Arabia released a congratulatory statement to him. Rohani too responded in a press conference about the importance of good ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, now both sides of leadership (Rohani and King Faisal) since 2005, has their personal interactions too.
It is early to tell whether this invitation signals the beginning of a broader rapprochement that could help stabilize the region. Though Rohani after holding presidential office is trying to mend offences with Sunni states in Persian Gulf but both sides (Iran and Saudi Arabia) are reluctant to share their fears with each other. Diplomatically, both sides are afraid of isolation and to avoid this Iran is trying to improve relations with West and neighboring states of Saudi Arabia as well.
What else has brought Saudi Arabia for this historic move is possibly the statement of the chairman of Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Amir Mohebbian, a conservative strategist and government adviser, he said that ‘Iran has won in Syria so easily because US does not understand Syria.
US wanted to replace Assad, but what was the alternative? All they have done has encouraged radical groups and made the borders less safe. We accept the need for change in Syria but gradually, otherwise there is chaos and region would fall in the hands of extremists.’ Perhaps this statement is demonstrating the change in Iranian mentality and attitude too which encouraged Saudi Arabia to give an open invitation for dialogue. This is a turning point which will be good for Muslims altogether. Although some analysts are warning that unless Iranian behavior or the flows of balance of power change, negotiating with Iran could make things worse.
The writer is PhD. Candidate at International Islamic University, Islamabad.