“We call on Saudi Arabia to collaborate with us in establishing security and stability in the region,” declared Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during a visit this week to Doha, the capital of Qatar.
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On his Facebook page, which never has a dull moment, Zarif wrote, “We are willing to conduct consultations with senior Saudi officials whenever our brethren in Saudi Arabia are ready. Bilateral meetings will benefit both countries, the region and the Muslim world.”
Riyadh is the next goal of Iranian foreign policy, after it signed an interim agreement regarding its nuclear program with the six world powers. Iran’s strategy is to become a key player in determining Middle East policies. Zarif is wasting no time, and it seems as if Riyadh is not indifferent to these overtures.
Al-Riyadh newspaper commented Monday that Zarif’s declarations are a step in a new direction, as part of Iran's changing policies, but that “the road is still long before the heavy cloud lying over relations between Iran and the Gulf states and with other Arab states is dispelled.”
Zarif’s first step was taken in a media-saturated visit to the sultanate of Oman, which hosted secret meetings between Iranian and American officials a few months earlier. From there, the foreign minister flew to Kuwait, where he declared his country’s readiness to develop economic ties with the state.
Later, Zarif went to Doha, where he met Qatar’s new ruler, Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, who declared that the nuclear program accord was a “huge achievement for Iran.”
The Gulf States have refrained from making such statements up to now, since they view this agreement, at least in public, as an American capitulation to Iran that could come at their expense. The Qatari sheikh clarified that “there are no historical disputes between Qatar and Iran and we are working to advance mutual consultations.”
That was inaccurate, to say the least. Qatar and Iran have had public and sharp disputes over Qatar’s attitude to the Syrian regime and its financing and arming of Syrian rebels, particularly the radical Islamist groups. The United Arab Emirates also have a dispute with Iran over the sovereignty over three Gulf islands, Greater and Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa. The UAE claims that Iran took them by force in 1971.
This dispute has not prevented these countries from maintaining extensive commercial ties with Iran; letting thousands of Iranian companies operate on their soil and serving as a bridgehead for Western products. They also handled the finances of many Iranian government officials until the imposition of heavy sanctions in 2012-2013.
The Gulf States do not adhere to a common foreign policy and, despite their membership in a cooperative union, none of them can force the others to pursue such a common policy. Thus, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been longstanding adversaries on several issues related to the Middle East. Saudi Arabia supported opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, while Qatar supported their regime in Egypt. Qatar, but not Saudi Arabia, is close to Hamas, while Kuwait pursues an independent foreign policy, unrelated to either country.
Thus, while Oman, Qatar and Kuwait may have good relations with Iran, the Saudis have a separate account with regard to Iran, unrelated to its nuclear capability. Their struggle for control is taking place in Syria and Lebanon. The Saudi efforts to dampen the warming of relations between Egypt and Iran was assisted by American pressure, followed by the takeover of power by the Egyptian military.
In the Syrian crisis, both countries need each other. Saudi Arabia is not blind to the pointlessness of continued fighting and the indifference of world powers to the slaughter taking place there. This week, Saudi Arabia witnessed how Turkey, its ally in the war against Assad, altered its tone while moving closer to the Iranian position.
Iran is striving to participate in the second Geneva conference on the Syrian crisis, scheduled for January 22. It will need Saudi Arabia’s acquiescence, so that both the U.S. and the Syrian opposition forces agree to its participation.
Saudi Arabia has shown in the past that it is very sensitive to shifts in the political map and that it can rapidly adapt to changing circumstances. Thus, for example, King Abdullah visited Syria in 2010, ending a five-year break in relations with Assad. Three years later, he was the first to demand that Assad be removed. Now, the kingdom may again be put to the test. Zarif’s visit, which has not been scheduled yet, may bring about yet another shift in the Saudi position, thus ending the virtual partnership with Israel over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.