Riyadh and Tehran relations remain on rocky ground

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a message for the Iranian New Year, or Nowruz, in Tehran, Iran. Nowruz marks the first day of spring and the beginning of the year on the Iranian calendar, March 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Office of the Iranian Presidency)

TEHRAN: As speculation mounts that Iran’s president could soon visit Saudi Arabia, tensions between Tehran and Riyadh are at an all-time high, but Iranian officials are ready to back Hassan Rouhani’s efforts to improve bilateral relations for the sake of regional security.

“We have no problem with having equal relations with all nations of the world except Israel,” said MP Ebrahim Aghamohammadi, who serves on parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee. “If we have any dialogue we will state so clearly and briefly our rights and another nations’ rights. Our relations with other nations or governments come from the point of respect for each other.”

Since he was elected as president last June, Rouhani has said he would make it a top priority to mend frayed relations with Saudi Arabia. But hostilities are running high between Riyadh and Tehran, with the two sides at daggers over the conflict in Syria, where Iran supports the regime of President Bashar Assad and Saudi Arabia backs rebels fighting to oust him.

Though diplomatic and political sources in Beirut told The Daily Star earlier this month that preparations were already underway for Rouhani to visit to the kingdom in the coming weeks, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said an official invitation had not yet been extended.

Iranian officials say that Tehran is ready for improved relations, though Riyadh seems reluctant to begin such dialogue.

“We hope that the Saudi regime ... can understand that it must return to unity and cooperation, because this benefits everyone, even Saudi Arabia ... And we hope our friends in Saudi Arabia don’t arrive at this point too late,” said Ahmad Dastmalchi, a retired diplomat who served as deputy ambassador to Saudi Arabia, as well as ambassador to Lebanon and Jordan and assistant to former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati.

Hosein Toukhteh, a retired diplomat who has also held senior posts in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab region, noted that some officials in Riyadh have greeted with suspicion Rouhani’s efforts to extend an olive branch to the kingdom.

“Some groups in Saudi Arabia portray Rouhani’s method as a kind of lie. ... But in my opinion, Rouhani is honest in this method [of pursuing diplomacy]. This is his belief. I don’t know if he will succeed or not in this policy. Will the Saudi leaders come to the table of dialogue with him? I’m not sure,” he added.

Rouhani and his closest political allies already have experience in bridging a deep divide that emerged between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. Relations between the two countries deteriorated sharply after the 1979 Iranian Revolution and onset of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, during which Riyadh sided with Baghdad. Ties were completely severed in 1987, following deadly clashes in Mecca between Saudi forces and mostly Iranian pilgrims who staged a demonstration against the U.S. and Israel while performing the hajj. More than 400 people died in what was then described as a riot by Riyadh and a massacre by Tehran.

After his election as president in 1989, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Rouhani’s chief political mentor, launched what proved to be a successful drive to revive bilateral relations, overseeing the restoration of official ties between the two countries in 1991.

Rafsanjani’s successor, Mohammad Khatami, another close political ally of Rouhani, built upon these efforts to achieve what Toukhteh described as the “best period in terms of repairing differences” between the Islamic Republic and the Saudi kingdom.

Rouhani, then secretary of Iran’s national security council, played a key role in the rapprochement, holding meetings in 1998 in Saudi Arabia with Prince Nayyef and Prince Saud that paved the way for Khatami’s trip to the kingdom in 1999, the first such visit by an Iranian president since the Islamic Revolution.

“In that time, I was charge d’affaires in the Riyadh embassy, and the relationship between the two countries improved so much,” Toukhteh said, suggesting that Rouhani’s background and experience with diplomacy in Riyadh would prove invaluable in his own effort as president to repair the current rift in Saudi-Iranian relations.

The widest gap to be bridged in any bilateral dialogue would be the Syrian conflict, where both sides accuse the other of responsibility for the bloodshed.

The view in Tehran is that Saudi Arabia has joined its opponents in an international battle that pits Tehran and its allies against the West and Israel.

“Some Saudi leaders began a kind of war against us in many countries by supporting some of the takfiris,” Toukhteh said, referring to hard-line militant groups that are battling Assad’s regime and have attacked Iranian interests in the region, including in Lebanon.

“It’s so clear that the Zionist regime with the participation of the U.S. and some Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia began this internal war in Syria to weaken the resistance line,” Aghamohammadi said.

“It’s so clear that not only Hezbollah but also Syria as a part of this resistance line was a target of Israeli strategy. And it’s so clear the takfiri groups are a kind of soldiers for Zionists.”

Dastmalchi echoed these views. “The Axis of Evil – the United States, the West and Israel, along with some of their partners in the Middle East – they are standing against the axis of resistance,” he said.

From Tehran’s perspective, Riyadh, through its support for militants fighting Assad’s regime, is fueling growing Sunni radicalism across the region that not only hurts Iran but will also eventually come back to haunt the kingdom itself.

“We have an Iranian saying, ‘they’re training snakes in their clothes,’” Dastmalchi said.

“After some time these snakes will attack them. I think in recent months they [Saudi leaders] started to understand this dangerous risk, but I think even now it seems late, very late.”

Dastmalchi was referring to Saudi King Abdullah’s recent decree to ban two of the most notorious groups fighting in Syria, the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Aghamohammadi said that while King Abdullah had acted against ISIS and Nusra, in all probability at the behest of the United States, the kingdom remained deeply involved in the conflict.

“In our overview their politics didn’t change in Syria but they’re keeping a kind of distance between themselves and the criminal activities of this part of the opposition in Syria,” Aghamohammadi said.

“But even now we see the Saudi regime supporting the Mujahedeen Army or the Free Syrian Army in Syria ... so they’re simply trying to reconstruct the face of the opposition by supporting these groups.”

“We don’t say all the things that Assad’s system did were right. It’s absolutely clear that there were so many problems. But the way to change that and improve that is to be more democratic. Any leader the Syrian people want, they must elect,” he said.

“Anyone who emerges [as a victor] from a free election will be respected by Iran,” Aghamohammadi said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 22, 2014, on page 12.




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