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Iran-Saudi Flirtation May Change Coalition Against Islamic State

Rapprochement may change U.S. objection to Iran's participation in campaign against militants in Iraq and Syria.

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It’s still early days, but the long courtship period between Iran and Saudi Arabia seems to be having an effect. After the first meeting Monday between Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in New York on the eve of the UN General Assembly, it looks as if the ties between the two countries are set to deepen. This development will have a significant impact on the coalition against the Islamic State and on the entire region.

The statements issued after the meeting were fascinating. On his government’s website, Zarif was quoted talking about “a new page in relations between the two countries,” while Faisal was quoted as noting that both Iran and Saudi Arabia are influential in the region and that cooperation between them “will undeniably have an effect on restoring peace.”

Saudi Arabia has taken pains to keep Iran out of the international alliance against the Islamic State and has even pressured Washington to take a similar position.

Tehran was not invited to the conference of the Arab coalition countries in Jeddah and was excluded from the subsequent meeting in Paris on grounds that a state that supports the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad can’t be part of the coalition.

Rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia is likely to change Washington’s position on the issue: The Americans know that without Iranian cooperation, threats to attack Islamic State positions in Syria are meaningless, and that if IS remains in Syria it will continue to profit from the oil fields it has seized in that country in the past year.

The disagreements over the future of the Assad regime between Saudi Arabia and the United States on the one hand, and between Iran and Russia on the other, could take a turn if relations between Tehran and Jeddah improve. Saudi Arabia has already demonstrated that it can pivot to accommodate a shift in the strategic situation. It is increasingly likely to realign more closely with Tehran over Syria, in light of Jeddah’s recognition that the rebel militias it has been supporting cannot defeat the Assad regime or contain IS in that country, as well as the IS success in occupying additional territory in Syria’s Kurdish region. In that event, Saudi Arabia would give its approval to Assad’s staying in power and destroy the rebels’ aspirations to replace him.

If Saudi Arabia joins the pro-Assad forces, Washington would lose its support in the region for insisting on the Syrian president’s removal at all costs, unless it were willing to settle for the support of Turkey and perhaps Qatar also. Ankara and Doha are incapable of providing the infrastructure for the broad Muslim and Arab coalition the United States seeks to recruit against IS. Washington could be forced to learn again that it does not have a monopoly on drafting the political map of the region and that the states themselves, particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran, also have something to say on the matter. IS deserves credit for spurring new coalitions, by means of its threats and actions, that would have been unimaginable just three months ago.

The dramatic meeting between Faisal and Zarif on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly could also affect Egypt’s position toward Iran: If Jeddah has agreed to dance with Tehran, then Cairo can as well. But we cannot conclude from this that a new and threatening alliance is in the works and the split between pro- and anti-Western states in the region is about to crumble. Iran’s cooperation with moderate Arab states in the war against IS could later force Tehran to block the extremist Islamic organization’s desire for influence in return for legitimacy.

The ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran are also likely to affect the international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program: Arab legitimacy and the need to involve Iran in the struggle against IS will largely erode the aura of the Iranian nuclear threat. The optimism conveyed this week by the Iranian foreign minister, who said it will be possible to sign a final agreement on this issue by November 24 (when the additional extension granted the nuclear talks ends), may indicate such a change.