To many observers, the political gulf between Riyadh and Tehran is much wider than the tactical rapprochement that has taken place in New York between Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif, on the fringes of the UN General Assembly.
The two officials met for around 60 minutes during which they discussed the key issue on the regional security agenda in the Middle East: the fight against extremism. The talks were not restricted to the subject of the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq and Syria, but extended to questions of power and spheres of influence.
In addition to the situations in Iraq and Syria, the two men discussed Yemen, where Sunday’s Houthi takeover of Sanaa has led to an agreement that has been described as a “quasi power-sharing” arrangement between the Shia Houthis and Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and Lebanon, where Sunni politician Saad Al-Hariri has returned after three years in Saudi Arabia.
This was the first meeting between Al-Faisal and Zarif since the rise to power of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani is thought to represent a more moderate outlook than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He is also the first Iranian president to urge the use of dialogue to resolve the crisis over the Iranian nuclear programme.
This led to direct communications between Rouhani and US President Barack Obama, which were followed by a breakthrough in relations between Washington and Tehran. Rouhani made similar overtures to Saudi Arabia, including the recent visit by Iran’s assistant foreign minister to Saudi Arabia.
Zarif described his meeting with his Saudi counterpart in New York as “turning a new page in the relations between our two countries.” Referring to the crisis surrounding the IS group in Iraq, he said: “We realise the importance and sensitive nature of the current crisis and the opportunity to confront it. We believe that we must avoid previous mistakes so that we can confront it successfully.”
Al-Faisal’s statements echoed sentiments expressed by Zarif. However, the meeting between the two men received more coverage in the Iranian press than it did in that of Saudi Arabia.
Abdullah Al-Rifai, dean of the Department of Communications at Al-Imam University in Riyadh, said that Iranian and Saudi understandings may have emerged at the meeting. “Perhaps they are the result of unpublicised meetings held at lower levels. Or perhaps they are preliminaries to future meetings,” he said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.
However, it was not clear whether the talks had dealt with a comprehensive agenda or whether they remained focused on specific subjects, such as the IS threat in Iraq.
Politics is the art of the possible, Al-Rifai said. Even if each side has its own agenda, parts of it may overlap with that of the other side. What matters is the need to focus on points of agreement.
“Let’s take US-Iranian relations as an example,” Al-Rifai said. “The two countries cooperated in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban and in Iraq to remove former president Saddam Hussein, but they differed when it came to Syria.”
Al-Rifai said that IS poses a grave threat to Iran because “it has occupied parts of Iraq, and Iran does not want that.”
According to Iranian affairs expert Amir Moussawi, Tehran is opposed to foreign intervention in Iraq and the US-led coalition that seeks to target the region.
However, Al-Rifai said that Iran wants to join the coalition, but on its own terms. “Iran does not want to lose its position in Iraq, which is under threat, and its perception that it controls Iraq, and not just Basra and Baghdad, has been shaken,” he said.
“Iran realises that Saudi Arabia, at the head of the Arab national security line, is now spearheading an alliance consisting of itself, the UAE and Egypt. These parties all have their own positions. Tehran might be willing to pay a price in Syria in order to avoid losing Iraq. It might sacrifice Syria in exchange for Iraq. The whole of Iraq is better than parts of it and better than losing everything.”
But Al-Rifai stressed the need for more diplomacy, saying, “There must be dialogue with Iran, or with others, even with Israel. There are various threats in the region, and political science dictates the need for dialogue to meet them.”
The dialogue between Tehran and Riyadh should not confine itself to certain areas, but should address all subjects, Al-Rifai said. “If Iran annoys Saudi Arabia over the issues of borders and spheres of influence, dialogue will need to find the solution.”
Speaking to the Weekly, international relations expert Tewfik Aclimandos said that diplomacy through dialogue was to be encouraged. “But we still have to take into account the fact that Iranian policy is manipulative by nature,” he said.
“Iran often works to shake stability in the region, contrary to Saudi Arabia which wants stability. On the other hand, considering the influence that each of these powers has on various groups and movements, imagine the difficult decisions they could impose on these groups if they chose to do so.
“That is something that should give pause for thought.”