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Iranian-Saudi ties defy the caricature narrative - Daily News Egypt

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Iranian-Saudi ties defy the caricature narrative

As Arab presidents, emirs, and kings lined up alongside the United Nations secretary general and the Pakistani, Malaysian, and Turkish heads of state in last month’s Arab League summit in Riyadh, one key player was missing at the highest level: Iran. Its nominal head of state, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was not invited to the summit. Instead …


As Arab presidents, emirs, and kings lined up alongside the United Nations secretary general and the Pakistani, Malaysian, and Turkish heads of state in last month’s Arab League summit in Riyadh, one key player was missing at the highest level: Iran. Its nominal head of state, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was not invited to the summit. Instead the relatively weak foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, attended on behalf of the Islamic Republic. On the surface, this fits the caricature narrative that has emerged in policy and media circles on both sides of the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean: Saudi Arabia, the bulwark of Sunni Islam, is caught in a battle for regional hegemony tinged with sectarian hues against Iran, the bulwark of Shia Islam. This analysis, however, fails to capture the growing and diverse range of diplomatic contacts between Riyadh and Tehran in the last few months, the insistent and loud anti-sectarian statements made by top leaders on both sides, and the evolving Saudi-Iranian relationship over the past decade. It also fails to capture the strategic philosophy of the Islamic Republic and the personal thinking of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. Though Saudi Arabia and Iran are natural competitors for influence in the Muslim world, both sides have been at pains to lower the rhetoric and avoid an escalation in tensions brought about by the Iraq war and tension in Lebanon, differences over Palestine and Afghanistan and rising sectarian divisions in the region. Ahmadinejad did not attend the Arab League summit, but he visited Riyadh just a few weeks earlier in a meeting that climaxed a flurry of diplomatic activity between Riyadh and Tehran. Prince Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s national security chief, has become a frequent visitor to Tehran and his counterpart Ali Larijani a regular traveler to Riyadh. There has also been a series of unpublicized private visits, according to informed sources, that may have even included Javad Zarif, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, who has flown from New York to Riyadh for talks, and the sons of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who are passing on messages in Riyadh from their still powerful father. The Ahmadinejad-King Abdullah meeting lowered tensions that had developed since the rise of the Iranian president to power in 2005. As one top advisor to the Saudi king told me: “King Abdullah had developed close, personal friendships with Rafsanjani and [former President Mohammed] Khatami, but he could not understand or get close to Ahmadinejad. He could not understand the theatrics and the outlandish statements. It reminded him of the early years of Iran’s revolution. This also coincided with growing concerns [regarding] Iran’s interference in Iraq. The meeting reportedly reduced misunderstandings, but didn’t constitute a breakthrough. Ahmadinejad returned home proclaiming that Saudi Arabia and Iran were on the same side against Western “conspiracies – an unlikely claim given Riyadh’s close relationship with Western powers. Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, told Christopher Dickey of Newsweek that Riyadh had concerns with Iran’s foreign policy, but “we have never put ourselves in a position of conflict with Iran. The Saudi king did, however, tell Ahmadinejad bluntly: “You’re interfering in Arab affairs. He also suggested, according to Saud Al-Faisal, that Iran not dismiss US threats so lightly and that Iranian actions in the Arab world – whether construed as interference or not – have the potential to heighten Shia-Sunni sectarian tensions, which in turn will harm Shia communities across the region. “This the Iranians worry about, Saud Al-Faisal said. But the Saudi foreign minister is only partly right. Yes, the Islamic Republic feels an emotional obligation to help and protect Shia communities, but it does not view itself as merely a sectarian Shia power. Rather, it sees itself as a pan-Islamic leader, a view that stretches back to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s days. Even when Khomeini was calling for “Islamic revolution in neighboring states and blasting the Saudis as “American puppets and Wahhabism as “American Islam, he rarely played the sectarian card. His targets of ire were not Sunnis, but the US and Israel and their regional allies: political targets, not religious ones. The same holds true for Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who fills his speeches today with complaints of “false divisions in the Muslim world created by “Zionists and “global arrogance. King Abdullah, for his part, has reached out to the Shia minority at home more than any monarch in Saudi history. He regularly lashes out at sectarianism and has hosted leaders from Hezbollah for talks on Lebanon as well as Shia clerics from Iraq for a reconciliation conference in Mecca. In his “State of the Kingdom speech on April 14 to the Majlis al-Shoura, his first item of business was a repudiation of sectarianism, calling it a threat to the national security of the state. And in his speech at the Arab League, in addition to calling the US venture in Iraq an “illegitimate occupation he lamented the “hateful sectarianism embroiling the country. From where does the Saudi king speak? After all, he still rules in alliance with a Wahhabist religious establishment that is virulently anti-Shia. Saudi public opinion also harbors a casual anti-Shia attitude and Saudi Shias, who make up some 10-15 percent of the population, still face an array of challenges to upward social mobility and limits on public displays of their faith. The Saudi king, weaned in his intellectually formative years on a diet of pan-Arabism, Islamic unity and support for the Palestine cause, has been deeply pained by the rising Shia-Sunni sectarian split, according to top aides interviewed during a recent visit to Riyadh. He views it as a threat to Arab and Muslim unity. He is also deeply emotionally attached to the Palestine issue. Indeed, Saud Al-Faisal told Newsweek that the king’s original response to the Hamas-Fatah fighting was conducted in “a very emotional state that led to his diplomacy that prompted the Mecca Accord. His is not the world view of the narrow Wahhabist sheikh. His is the world view of the Arab nationalist, the Palestine sympathizer and the old guard enforcer of stability, tinged with an almost romantic notion of the preeminence of Muslim unity. And his views on Iran? They have evolved to an almost wary acceptance. During the 1980s, Abdullah, then the crown prince, and much of the Saudi establishment feared and reviled Iran. Indeed, it is said that they funded Iranian opposition figures in Europe. Khomeini regularly blasted the Al-Saud, even devoting several paragraphs of vitriol to them in his last will and testament. Meanwhile, King Fahd poured money into the Iraqi war effort against Iran, once famously saying to Saddam Hussein: “You provide the rijal [men], we provide the rials. In 1987, Saudi forces shot at Iranian pilgrims who were demonstrating during the annual Islamic pilgrimage, leading to riots that left some 400 dead. Khomeini banned Iranians from attending the hajj for four years after that and the two countries broke diplomatic ties. Rafsanjani paved the way for a rapprochement by making cautious overtures to Riyadh. Saudi Arabia also appreciated Iran’s stance of neutrality on the first Gulf war. Diplomatic relations resumed in the early 1990s. Still, there was little or no people-to-people contact and no airline traffic between the two capitals. Saudi Shias who wanted to visit Iran by plane would fly to Dubai first. In the Khatami era, the Saudi-Iranian relationship bloomed. Riyadh embraced Khatami’s foreign policy of inclusion. Crown Prince Abdullah’s visit to Tehran in 1997 to attend an Organization of the Islamic Conference summit proved to be an eye-opening experience for all sides. As a gentle snow drifted over Tehran, one member of the Saudi delegation stood outside, wide-eyed: “All these years we lived next to Iran, we never knew it snowed here. Over the next few years, the two countri
es rediscovered each other. Flights between their respective capitals resumed. Trade delegations exchanged visits. Khatami and Abdullah spoke on the phone regularly. Oil ministers coordinated policies closely. Saudi Shias began visiting Iranian pilgrimage sites. Saudi Arabia’s fears of revolutionary Iran dissipated and Tehran came to understand that Riyadh was not the lapdog of America that Khomeini depicted. There was even talk of joint military exercises; a “security agreement was signed in 2002. The election of Ahmadinejad and the multiple crises roiling the region have added new stresses to the relationship. Still, recent history, the convergence of interests in oil and regional stability and the wary understanding that, despite Ahmadinejad’s problematic rhetoric, each side needs the other are the key drivers in the relationship today. Afshin Molaviis a fellow at the New America Foundation and author of the “Soul of Iran. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.

Topics: Wael Ghonim

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