Iran and Saudi Arabia test the limits of their new-found rapprochement

Signs of a thaw between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as assessed by Areeb Rantawi (Addustour), Khalid Al Dakhil and Zuhair Qusaibati (Al Hayat) and Hazem Ayyad (Assabeel).

Saudi Arabia’s open invitation to a dialogue with Iran, if it succeeds, promises a de-escalation of several regional crises, from Yemen and Bahrain, to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, argued Areeb Rantawi in Jordan-based daily Addustour.

The Saudi foreign minister, Saud Al Faisal, recently invited his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to visit Riyadh. This move, the writer noted, followed a series of crucial regional developments.

These include Iran and the 5+1 group beginning talks to reach a final settlement on Tehran’s nuclear programme, the frequent statements from Riyadh and other Arab capitals that they were open to Tehran, and the failed bid to oust the Assad regime. There is also the failed attempt to restore Iraq to the Arab Sunni axis and the success of Tehran-allied Iraqi politicians in the recent elections, and the escalating threat of terrorism amid sectarian tension in the region.

Riyadh’s invitation came after a series of secret meetings in Muscat and Kuwait. Over the next few months, exchange visits are expected, including one by Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president.

Opening the door to negotiations between Tehran and Riyadh could ease regional tensions and polarisation and have a positive impact, albeit to different extents, on several Arab countries, the writer noted.

While Lebanon and Iraq are likely to benefit from a thaw in Saudi-Iranian relations, the extreme opposite attitudes to the Assad regime will test the rapprochement.

Despite the optimism about this major development in the relationship between the two regional powers, it should not raise unrealistic expectations because the gap between them remains wide and possibly “lethal”. But it is a hopeful start for them to have decided to move from the “proxy wars” trenches to the negotiating table.

Saudi author Khalid Al Dakhil wrote in the London-based Al Hayat that the Saudi invitation came after a visit to the kingdom by US president Barack Obama in March, which suggests that the Americans convinced Riyadh about the merits of mending fences with Iran.

The Saudi call also came after the Geneva II talks on Syria had failed, the Assad regime made military gains on the ground and Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, announced his resignation. This might have convinced Riyadh that a military solution in Syria was no longer plausible.

The question is whether there was a change in Saudi policy towards Iran on contentious issues and whether Riyadh saw signs of a new Iranian approach to those issues?

Before Prince Faisal’s statement, the regional rivals showed no clear signs of a policy change. Saudi Arabia was unwavering in wanting president Al Assad deposed, because otherwise it had to accept that Iran’s sway extends from Baghdad through Syria to Beirut, laying siege to Saudi Arabia on its northern and northwest borders.

Prince Faisal’s statement aims, at best, to open the way for the option of negotiating with Tehran with a view to testing its intentions and finding out what it can offer on settling regional issues.

Iran has achieved major political breakthroughs in Iraq and Syria. But while these gains are temporary, with both countries remaining torn by civil war, talks with Iran under these circumstances run the risk of recognising and entrenching Iran’s achievements and sacrificing all those who are resisting Iran’s influence there.

Zuhair Qusaibati remarked in Al Hayat that Riyadh’s step will test whether Tehran will put into action its frequent rhetoric that it is against interfering in the affairs of countries in the region.

The Saudi move probably seeks to emulate the West’s model of direct talks with Iran to ensure it had no intention of possessing a nuclear bomb. These talks, one must remember, have taken a decade, assuming they will have a happy end.

The Saudi-Iranian rapprochement will also hinge on Tehran’s willingness to adopt a hands-off approach to Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. Tehran needs to stop backing Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, the Houthis in Yemen, the Assad regime and Hizbollah, and stop interfering in the affairs of the Gulf countries, the writer concluded.

Writing for the Jordan-based Assabeel daily, Hazem Ayyad noted that Saudi Arabia is trying hard to adjust to the transformations, as Iran’s influence grows stronger while its own is on the wane.

It was hard to imagine an efficient Saudi policy without powerful regional allies. Egypt is mired in a stifling crisis that could become a burden on Saudi Arabia, while Turkey is often regarded as a rival. This rift with Ankara might explain the Saudi move, a pre-emptive bid against a Turkish-Iranian agreement in Syria that can preclude further harmony over Egypt and Iraq.

Translated by Abdelhafid Ezzouitni

aezzouitni@thenational.ae

Published: May 18, 2014 04:00 AM

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