RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has invited Iran’s foreign minister to make an official visit to the kingdom, Riyadh said Tuesday, hinting at the possibility of a thaw in relations between two bitter rivals whose struggle for influence is evident in conflicts throughout the region.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has adopted a conciliatory tone toward Tehran’s neighbors since taking office last year, but while Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has visited other Gulf Arab states, he has not yet been to Saudi Arabia.
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.
However, with Riyadh and Tehran giving full-throated backing to opposing sides in Syria’s civil war, and accusing each other of fueling the bloodshed, the prospects for any meaningful detente now appear slim, analysts say.
Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told a news conference that Zarif had been given an invitation to the kingdom but that despite Iran’s past declarations of a wish to improve ties, the visit had not transpired. He did not say when Riyadh issued the invitation or if Iran had formally responded.
“Any time that [Zarif] sees fit to come, we are willing to receive him. Iran is a neighbor, we have relations with them and we will negotiate with them, we will talk with them,” he said.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have long supported competing factions in Arab countries, often along sectarian lines. But Iranian backing for Syrian President Bashar Assad, and the aid Riyadh has given to rebels trying to oust him, has raised their mutual hostility to unprecedented levels.
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. But since taking office in August, the moderate Rouhani has overseen a conciliatory shift in Iran’s hitherto confrontational foreign relations. The most tangible result has been the interim nuclear deal reached with global powers on Nov. 24.
Although Iran’s president has a major stake in determining Tehran’s foreign policy, the ultimate say is in the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“It’s only a matter of time before Zarif takes up the invitation. ... It’s a question of coordination at home with the leader. But it’s inevitable that he go and important that he does,” said Anoush Ehteshami, director of the al-Sabah program for international relations at Durham University in Britain.
“The Saudis are calling his bluff and saying ‘come’.”
Saudi officials have remained suspicious, however, accusing Iran of being “an occupying power” in Syria, where they describe Assad as carrying out genocide against the country’s civilian population via air strikes in urban areas.
“Our hope is that Iran becomes part of the effort to make the region as safe and as prosperous as possible and not become part of the problem,” the Saudi foreign minister said.
According to Abdulaziz al-Sager, head of the Gulf Research Centre, based in Jeddah and Geneva, “it’s not a rapprochement.”
“All the issues are still there. [Iran’s] interference that we have seen – all of it will come again onto the table. But it’s better to meet your counterpart and to see the margin for compromise,” he said.
Rouhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, regarded by Riyadh as a source of much of the tension between the countries, did meet Saudi King Abdullah at a 2012 Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit in Mecca.
Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Saudi Arabia Tuesday, on the first leg of a regional tour focusing on Iran and Syria.
Hagel met with Saudi officials and will meet Gulf Cooperation Council defense ministers Wednesday in the first U.S.-GCC meeting of its kind since 2008. The formal agenda includes missile defense and other security issues linked to Iran.