BEIRUT: A long-awaited Saudi-Iranian rapprochement is likely to reflect positively on the unstable situation in Lebanon by helping to defuse sectarian and political tensions linked to the war in Syria and accelerating the election of a new president, analysts and experts said Thursday.
Speaker Nabih Berri and rival Lebanese politicians have said that improved Iranian-Saudi relations would result in breakthroughs in Lebanon and the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
“It is a key move on the part of the Saudis toward Iran,” said Sami Nader, a professor of economics and international relations at Universite St. Joseph, commenting on Saudi Arabia’s official invitation to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to visit Riyadh for talks on a host of contentious issues that have strained relations for years between the two regional heavyweights.
“Of course, a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement will help ease political and sectarian tensions in Lebanon and hasten efforts to elect a neutral president,” Nader told The Daily Star.
He said a thaw in Saudi-Iranian ties would also eventually encourage former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who has been living abroad for nearly three years for security reasons, to return to Lebanon to head a new government after the election of a new president.
Citing what he termed “a micro-deal” between Riyadh and Tehran that led to the formation of Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s government in February after a 10-month deadlock, Nader said: “The two countries will discuss key divisive issues over Syria, Iraq and Lebanon and will try to reach a deal to share influence in these three countries.”
Imad Salamey, professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, concurred.
“A Saudi-Iranian thaw will help reduce political and sectarian tensions in Lebanon and help in the election of a new president,” Salamey told The Daily Star.
“The election of a new president in Lebanon will be a testing ground for a new rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia.”
Salamey said the two Muslim countries wield great influence in the volatile region, particularly in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
He added that the “positive collaboration” between Riyadh and Tehran was already bearing fruit, leading to the formation of a new government in Lebanon and the smooth implementation of a security plan in the northern city of Tripoli to end years of sectarian fighting between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“Neither side is pushing for a confrontation in Lebanon. With its [$3 billion] grant to the Lebanese Army, Saudi Arabia is seeking to stabilize Lebanon,” Salamey said.
Saudi Arabia took a step toward breaking the ice with its regional rival Iran Tuesday, when Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said he had invited his Iranian counterpart to visit and was awaiting a reply.
“I hope that Iran contributes to stability in the region,” Prince Saud was quoted as saying by the official Saudi Press Agency.
“ Iran is a neighbor country and we have relations with it. We talk to them and hope to end any differences between the two countries.”
Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon Ghazanfar Roknabadi said last month that there has been a breakthrough in tense relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia that would have a positive impact on all regional issues.
Saudi Arabia has long been wary of Iran’s influence in the region. Riyadh and other Gulf states have also been apprehensive of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Saudi-Iranian relations have been further strained by policy differences, particularly over the 3-year-old civil war in Syria, where the two countries support opposing sides. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors back rebels fighting to topple Assad’s government, which is supported by Tehran.
In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iran also support opposing sides.
While Saudi Arabia backs the Future Movement-led March 14 coalition, Iran supports the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance.
Rapprochement between the two countries would have ramifications across the Middle East, potentially cooling political and military struggles in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen.
Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of fomenting unrest among the Shiite majority in its neighbor Bahrain, as well as the sect’s minority in its own eastern province, and also charges Tehran with plotting to assassinate its envoy in Washington in 2011.
Iran denies those accusations, as well as Saudi suspicions – shared with Western powers – that it has been using its declared civilian nuclear energy program as a front to covertly develop atomic bomb capability.
Since he was elected as Iran’s president last June, Hassan Rouhani has said he would make it a top priority to mend frayed relations with Saudi Arabia. Rouhani has adopted a conciliatory tone toward Tehran’s neighbors since taking office, but while Zarif has visited other Gulf Arab states, he has not yet been to Saudi Arabia.
Shafik Masri, professor of international law at the Lebanese and American universities, said an improvement in Saudi-Iranian ties would reflect positively on the situation in Lebanon by de-escalating tensions and clearing the way for the election of a new president acceptable to the rival factions.
“The two countries hold influential keys in Lebanon [through their support for opposing sides]. Therefore, any thaw between Iran and Saudi Arabia will leave a positive impact on the situation in Lebanon, given the sharp divisions between the two [March 8 and March 14] factions which cannot ensure the victory of their own candidate for the presidency,” Masri told The Daily Star.
“A Saudi-Iranian rapprochement will help ease sectarian and political tensions and may speed up the election of a president,” he said.
“If a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement materializes, most probably it will then be possible to elect a president who can be partially satisfactory to the two rival factions,” Masri said.
Masri added that a détente between Riyadh and Tehran would also leave a positive impact on touristic, commercial and social activities in Lebanon.
He addedthat the United States supported a thaw in Saudi-Iranian relations because it served its interests in the region.
Citing the ongoing negotiations between Iran and six world powers on Tehran’s nuclear program, Israel’s constant concerns over Iran’s nuclear threat and the security of the oil-rich Gulf region, Masri said: “For these reasons, any Saudi-Iranian rapprochement is perhaps done with an American will because the U.S. has an interest in seeing [this rapprochement] concluded.”
Talal Atrissi, a Lebanese University lecturer with expertise on Iran and the Middle East, concurred, saying any Saudi-Iranian deal to facilitate the election of a president in Lebanon needed America’s approval.
“The beginning of talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran will reflect positively in Lebanon by defusing Sunni-Shiite tensions,” Atrissi told The Daily Star.
“With regard to the election of a new president, a Saudi-Iranian deal will take some time because any Saudi-Iranian understanding on Lebanon’s next president needs an American approval,” he said.
“The next Lebanese president must fulfill conditions to satisfy Saudi Arabia, Iran and America.”
Atrissi predicted Saudi-Iranian attempts to reach agreement on a new president would begin only after the country falls into a presidential vacuum on May 25, when President Michel Sleiman’s six-year term in office expires.
“ Lebanon is one of the contentious issues between the two countries, in addition to Syria and Iraq,” Atrissi said. He noted that the Saudi invitation for dialogue with Iran came before the results of Iraq’s parliamentary elections were announced and before the formation of a new government by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“The Saudi move signaled that Riyadh wanted to have a say in Iraq’s domestic politics after the elections,” he said.