In the introduction to his 500-page memoir “The Iranian Nuclear Crisis” Hossein Mousavian recalls being recalled to Tehran in the early 1990s by then-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and asked to help “mend relations with the Saudis.”
Mousavian, Iran’s ambassador to Germany at the time, was dispatched along with Rafsanjani’s son Mehdi to meet then-Crown Prince Abdullah at his summer villa in Casablanca. After a three-hour talk, Abdullah told Mousavian: “My aim in this meeting was to evaluate you and see whom Rafsanjani had chosen to negotiate with me and if I can make a deal with him or not.”
Saudi Arabia had been alarmed by the 1979 Islamic Revolution, whose leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had deemed kingship – a staple form of government in the Arabian Peninsula – incompatible with Islam. Yet Mousavian’s meeting led to a thaw in the 1990s that he calls a “new dawn in Tehran-Riyadh relations.”
Mousavian was later a negotiator in the 2003-2005 nuclear talks with the Europeans, and it is interesting that his memoir refers so prominently to his talks with Abdullah as a backdrop to the later struggles within Iran over nuclear policy.
For the Saudi-Iranian thaw of the 1990s had turned by 2008 into a Saudi demand that the U.S. “cut off the head of the snake,” to quote United States diplomatic cables revealed by WikiLeaks. This, Mousavian argues in the memoir, reflected a shift in Iran, both over matters nuclear and over relations with the Saudis, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad marginalizing pragmatists such as Mousavian after 2005.
It must be no surprise for Mousavian that Hassan Rouhani, who led the 2003-2005 nuclear talks, identified improving relations with Saudi Arabia as a priority both during last summer’s presidential election and at his inauguration. Nor that the Tehran rumor mill has been suggesting Rouhani will visit Riyadh.
Has the terrain changed since the 1990s? Partly not. Mousavian’s account says his meeting with Abdullah was “extremely tough,” with “a wide range of topics and issues discussed, ranging from security in the region and bilateral relations to Saudi government relations with the Sunni population of Iran and the Iranian influence on the Shiite population within Saudi Arabia.”
Back in the early 1990s, there were favorable trends. The end of the Iran-Iraq war had eased tensions between Iran and the Arab world. Iran’s ally Syria had played a key role alongside Saudi Arabia in brokering the 1989 Taif agreement that ultimately ended Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.
Khomeini’s death in 1989 also helped, with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei succeeding him and proving a more cautious decision-maker. As for Rafsanjani, he was a pragmatist who recognized that the Saudis were a power in the region and within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Today, the Rouhani government argues that the assertive policies of Ahmadinejad alienated many Arab leaders and led to tightened Western sanctions that have halved Iran’s oil exports. Various developments, including the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the conflict in Syria, have heightened Shiite-Sunni tensions.
Written off many times, Rafsanjani remains an influential figure in Iran and appears to still be interested in mending fences with Saudi Arabia. In January, he publicly suggested that Sunni-Shiite differences over the legitimate successor to the Prophet Mohammad were a historical matter with no lingering significance.
In February, Rafsanjani posted a picture on his website of himself with King Abdullah alongside a transcript of a conversation from 2008. A few days later, the Rouhani government proposed a diplomatic initiative to resolve the Syria war, based on opposition to “takfiri terrorism,” humanitarian aid and comprehensive talks.
But the challenges to improved relations are greater than in the 1990s. In a speech this month in Williamsburg, Virginia, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the astute former head of Saudi intelligence, held out hope that Rouhani sought a dialogue, but he also repeated Saudi warnings that Iran might use nuclear talks as a screen to build atomic weapons and suggested that the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council might seek their own nuclear deterrent.
Bahrain is another bone of contention. Leading Iranian newspapers (including the semiofficial Kayhan) and political figures, for instance Ali Akbar Nateq Nuri, an adviser to Khamenei, have long suggested that Iran has some form of sovereignty over the island. That is why it is hardly surprising that some people suspect that Iranian hands were behind, for example, the explosion that killed three policemen earlier this month in Manama.
Differences over Saudi Arabia reflect a wider conflict between pragmatists such as Rafsanjani and Rouhani and opponents who are more ideological and nationalistic. Rouhani appears to be calculating that a compromise over the nuclear question that can satisfy Washington would also be accepted by Riyadh.
Given the dynamics of this particular triangle, it is not surprising that the question of Rouhani visiting Riyadh may not be settled at least until after the looming visit of President Barack Obama, his first since 2009. This comes at a delicate time in relations between the two allies as Washington struggles to convince the Saudis of the value of the dialogue with Tehran.
It is a time, too, for cool heads. In his January speech, Rafsanjani painted a bleak picture of the “serious consequences” of the growing sectarian tension in the Muslim world. “An 8-year-old girl in Afghanistan puts on a suicide vest to blow up people because she had made some promises to her brother,” he said. “The destructive results of this fight are approaching complete madness.”
Gareth Smyth has reported from the Middle East since 1992 and was chief Iran correspondent of The Financial Times in 2003-2007. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.