Middle East
The Scope of the Saudi-Iranian Collaboration 20 Feb 2007
by Abdel Wahab Badrakhan

Saudi Arabia and Iran have opened a chink in the closed horizons of the region. It all started with a simple call for exchange of views, which subsequently developed into a full-fledged communication. Now, there is talk about convergence and affinity between the two sides. Whatever the manner of communication between the two largest countries in the region, it is expected to be beneficial. Even if the interaction fails, it would not exacerbate the situation, but some residual gains would be made.

Obviously, this communication has been long overdue and it would be difficult to place the blame for the delay on either side. The atmosphere was devoid of trust, as it had become difficult to pierce through the fog of mutual suspicion and fog. Usually, when there is lack of transparency it becomes difficult to know what is on the minds of the two sides. Consequently, it becomes difficult to forge and develop a relationship. However, it is known that Tehran broke the ice because of two developments. The first development was the unanimous decision by the Security Council on imposing the first phase of sanctions against it. The second development pertains to the rising discord and strife between Sunnis and the Shiites.

Iran had made intense diplomatic efforts to avoid a unanimous decision in the Security Council against its nuclear program, even if the sanctions were not particularly painful. However, with the passing of the resolution a new situation has emerged concerning the resolution of the nuclear issue. In addition, the surfacing of Sunni-Shiite differences has forced Tehran to launch an initiative, through which it hopes to prove its ability of making positive efforts. Moreover, Tehran has sensed that a fall in oil prices could hurt its interests, because it pumps its oil revenues into its nuclear program and for enhancing its influence in various places.

Iranian envoy Ali Larijani's first visit to Riyadh was brief and quick, and came at a time when the Lebanese situation had peaked to alarming levels. It was understood then that Tehran had offered its assistance in solving the crises and that Saudi Arabia was trying to defuse the situation by communicating with all concerned parties, except Syria. It was only natural here that the Iranian side would communicate with Syria to include it in what was being planned. Meanwhile, some developments started to gradually figure in Iranian-Saudi talks. On the one hand, the US president declared the so-called "Bush" plan for Iraq and made it clear that it would target the Iranian influence in Iraq, in addition to the Syrian role. On the other hand, the relationship between Palestinian factions deteriorated and with bloodshed in the streets, the beginning of a protracted civil war was feared.

In light of this explosive situation, the framework of the Iranian-Saudi interaction widened, and the deliberations started covering the problems related to the three hotspots. Immediate priority was given to stopping the bloodshed in Palestine, for despite the fact that Fatah and Hamas had previously reached many agreements on solving the crises, street forces and the US and Israeli involvement had prevented the resolution of the deteriorating situation.

The confrontation that took place following the Israeli aggression on Lebanon in the summer of 2006 convinced Iranians and Syrians that conflicts in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq benefited them at that stage. However, subsequent Iranian analysis of the situation made it deviate partially from Syrian views, as the latter supported aligning itself with Iran, but opposed relinquishing what it perceives as vital Syrian interests, especially in the case of Lebanon.

Where is the United States in all of this? No doubt, Saudi Arabia wants to activate its diplomacy but it is not obliged to take the risk of opening a communication channel with Iran, at the expense of US disapproval. Undoubtedly, the US support will be restricted, even stringent. However, Washington is desperately looking for any positive contribution or practical assistance at present. Therefore, until now it has shown extraordinary flexibility and even an unprecedented "liberality," as it desperately needs a Saudi role in the absence of a useful Egyptian role in handling Iran.

From the moment of the declaration of the Mecca Accords between Fatah and Hamas, it was obvious that it had not met "international conditions" or Israeli demands. Still, Washington responded to the agreement with calm and caution. It did not ditto the Israeli position of criticizing the agreement as a pretext for canceling the Israeli-Palestinian-US summit that is supposed to launch a plan for reviving the "peace process" and a move toward the declaration of a "Palestinian state" within temporary borders. This declaration was intended to support the "Bush" plan, whose implementation is presently underway in Baghdad.

The Mecca Accord would not have been possible had Iran and Syria put pressure on the Hamas leadership to boycott the deliberations and reject the Saudi invitation. However, as it is in the Palestinian national interest to stop the infighting, and the desire to comprehend the scope of US engagement all obstacles to the meeting were overcome. Moreover, taking a negative stand just to torpedo a Saudi initiative did not seem meaningful or worthwhile. Consequently, an inter-Palestinian reconciliation did not pose a problem for any party. Moreover, the Mecca Accord is not the end of the road but the beginning of a new Palestinian phase, which suggest that all the cards have not been revealed or played yet.

The Saudi-Iranian interaction has somehow contributed to controlling the situation in Lebanon, but the proposed agreements were not accepted by Syria. Still, the relative calm may not spell the end of the crises and the most one can expect is the prevention of a sectarian conflict and the simmering of the crises on the backburner. It is noted that the entry of Iran on the Saudi tack is evident from the rather realistic and restrained tone of Hezbollah's speeches. This suggests that in a worst-case scenario, Hezbollah could have a tactic that could be somehow different from the Syrian script, which at some stage could cause major crisis.

Undoubtedly, the most difficult issue for the Iranian-Saudi deliberations has been Iraq. Both parties differ a lot in the way they have been dealing with the Iraqi situation since the American invasion and occupation, and have divergent aims. Iran does not consider helping Americans except within the framework of direct bilateral agreements. Tehran has also benefited from the US occupation, is aware of its shortcomings and knows how to take advantage of the situation. It finds no difficulty in dealing with the "Bush" plan to meet its aims. For its part, Saudi Arabia wants to push the discussion to cover the scenario after a possible American withdrawal, and the possibilities of controlling the chaotic Iraqi situation. Any understanding or agreement on this issue could help calm the bloody conflict, but efforts should be clearly formulated and desired. For that purpose, Iran must clarify the limits to its gamble in Iraq. It may not be able to settle this matter within the scope of its interactions with Saudi Arabia but would rely on the latter delivering its message to the American side.

The issue of Iraq and nuclear program will be present before the Saudis, Iraqis, and the international community bargaining with Iran. Gulf countries are extremely concerned with the probable dangers of the Iranian nuclear program, and they cannot but stand behind international efforts to oppose this program. The sphere of Iran's influence, in addition to its nuclear activity, has kindled fears among Iran's Gulf neighbors as they find themselves in an awkward position, for neither the comforting words of Tehran nor the international pressure seem reassuring. Even the possibility of a US-Iranian agreement does not seem encouraging, nor the option of a precise and limited military action seem comforting.

The present Saudi-Iranian interaction covers all these issues. It is obvious that this interaction will not be able to provide a set of solutions for all the burning issues being discussed, but the communication and the association will definitely make a difference in the region, if the United States wants to allow it to make head ways on which solutions can be built. It is true that the US is vacillating between its perceived interests in a peaceful solution, and those it hopes to achieve through a military solution. However, creative solutions will have to pass through a wide regional assembly to meet the interests of all parties and to put out the wars in the region.

The content herein does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the ECSSR