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Active Preparation for a Saudi – Iranian Détente

The Emir of Kuwait Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah will visit Iran at the end of this month in a continuation of a series of high profile exchanges between the Arab Gulf States and Tehran.  One of the most important topics on Al Sabah’s visit to Tehran is the Saudi – Iranian “cold war” in the region and the current efforts to end it.  There is possibility that Kuwait can intermediate between the two regional powers regarding some of the critical issues that cannot be easily handled through other channels.  In the past months, several Gulf states have had exchanges with the Islamic Republic, but the coming visit by the Kuwaiti Emir is the first to be scheduled since the media reports that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had received – and accepted – the invitation to Saudi Arabia.   However, there are still many unsettled issues that could jeopardize this first steps.

One indication of this uncertainty is that Tehran persists in reminding everyone that the recent Saudi invitation to Foreign Minister Zarif was merely an “oral” communication, and a specific date for the visit was never set.  In reality, the visit of Zarif is awaiting the results of the work by a number of panels that are endeavoring to craft general outlines of mutual understandings on difficult issues.  At the same time, the toughest issues will be left to the political leadership of both sides.

In Saudi Arabia, the opposition to reconciliation with Iran is running high, with well-placed influential voices speaking about “conditions” that must be met to improve ties with the Iranians. The situation in Iran is not much different.  Opposition to a deal with the Arabs is based on a sense that Iran is achieving some major victories in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and  it therefore should not waste this capital under any circumstances by pursuing a compromise.

But behind this curtain of misgivings concerning the reconciliation, third parties, with limited participation of Iranians and Saudis, are already engaged in significant work on the issues that represent the highest points of divergence between the two sides.  This work—not visible to the naked eye—is equivalent to negotiations by proxy that will pave the road to a more effective and businesslike exchange of visits between Riyadh and Tehran.

These proxy “workshops” mainly have the Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain dossiers on their agendas. However, it is difficult to reach a compromise on such tough issues without sufficient political will in the two capitals. The resistance to any concession regarding Syria is indeed higher than anticipated in Riyadh.  In turn, the Iranians are saying that all concerned parties have to admit that the fight on the ground did not achieve the regime change that was desired, and therefore others have to recognize reality.

According to initial plans, these panels were to have started with the “easy files” such like Bahrain. However, the parties soon concluded that it was virtually impossible to sidestep the Syrian conflict, which was the main source of friction between the two powers. A deal on any other issue or venue would have been extremely vulnerable to failure in the event of a major surge in the military confrontation in Syria.

 

The Iranians have indicated that they are not particularly keen to defend Bashar Al Assad as long as their interests in Syria are preserved, and a comprehensive Taif-like deal is being actively discussed in the preparatory panels.

Some of the particularly tough nuts in reaching a detente deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia are related to Iraq as well. Al Sabah will also have that in his bag before hitting the road to Tehran.

If these active preparations for an exchange of visits between Riyadh and Iran can reach some general outline that the two capitals can work with, then it will be left to the political powers to bridge the gaps to end a painful and dangerous episode in the modern history of the Middle East.

As MEB has warned before, the nature of the Saudi-Iran differences is regional, not bilateral.  Should there be a satisfactory result in negotiating these difficult issues, there is a possibility that  Zarif’s visit will be followed by another invitation, this time to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

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