Confused by Trump, Gulf States Push for Iran-Saudi Rapprochement

On the surface, bad blood between the two regional powers is as strong as ever, but Kuwait and Oman are leading efforts to heal rift.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
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Crowds gather in London's Trafalgar Square for a public screening of the Iranian film "The Salesman," February 26, 2017.
Hundreds of people gather in London's Trafalgar Square for a public screening of the Iranian film "The Salesman," February 26, 2017.
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.

“Shahab Hosseini is more dangerous than the Revolutionary Guards,” wrote the Saudi newspaper Mecca last August. “Iran has captured the entire world with its professional film industry,” warned the daily, unwittingly complimenting Iranian cinema.

Hosseini is the protagonist in the film “The Salesman,” for which Iranian director Asghar Farhadi won his second Oscar in the category of Best Foreign Language Film on Sunday night (following “A Separation” in 2012).

A representative of Farhadi, Iranian-American businesswoman Anousheh Ansari, read a short declaration in his name, in which he outlined his reasons for not attending the ceremony: the executive order issued by U.S. President Donald Trump forbidding entry into the United States by citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran – and their implications and significance.

Thousands of words have been written on the executive order, including the interesting question as to why Saudi Arabia of all places – the country from which 15 of the 19 terrorists in the 9/11 attacks originated – was not included.

But that’s no consolation for the kingdom, which continues to be troubled by Iran’s cinematic success. The extensive coverage of the battle between the two regional powers doesn’t skip the channels of public diplomacy, in which cinema plays an important part.

In the face of Farhadi’s success, Saudi Arabia is presenting a film of its own. Not a feature film, since there is almost no movie industry in Saudi Arabia. Instead, it is a documentary produced by Margin Scope – the film company owned by Saudi-U.S. businessman and lobbyist Salman al-Ansari.

Firouz Naderi, left, and Anousheh Ansari with the Oscar they accepted on behalf of Asghar Farhadi, who won the Best Foreign Language Film for "The Salesman," February 26, 2017.

As might be expected, the film – called “Menace in Disguise” – labels Iran a terrorist state that aspires to undermine stability in the region.

Interviewees include senior American officials, including Dr. Michael Ledeen – a close friend of Michael Flynn, who was Trump’s national security adviser for 15 minutes.

The neoconservative Ledeen devotes most of his academic and political work to the Iranian threat. In the 1980s he was involved in Irangate, which was designed to bring about an internal revolution in Iran, but ended with the sale of Iranian weapons to the rebels in Nicaragua, in a circuitous deal that included Israel.

The Trump camp, which has come out with a renewed campaign against the nuclear agreement with Iran, is now a gold mine for refugees of the two Bush administrations. They are reviving the anti-Iranian and pro-Saudi policy, after being marginalized during the years of the Obama administration. Any means of fighting Iran, including cinema, is acceptable to them – even when Trump’s policy is actually strengthening Iran’s status.

Yet now, just when the two rival countries seem so far from reconciliation, there are signs of rapprochement.

At the end of last week, senior Iranian representatives sat with Saudi representatives in the Saudi commercial capital of Jeddah to discuss arrangements for the hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca), after crowded conditions there caused the deaths of thousands of pilgrims, including over 450 Iranians, in 2015.

Iran banned its citizens from attending the hajj the following year, but now it seems the two countries are willing to reach an agreement. After the January 8 death of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Saudi Arabia refrained from sending a public letter of condolence. But King Salman did send a short personal condolence letter to the Rafsanjani family. Rafsanjani was the spirit behind the reconciliation efforts between Iran and Saudi Arabia until recent years.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani recently discovered that at least 10 countries, headed by Kuwait and Oman, have offered their mediation services, and continue to explore ways in which to improve relations between Tehran and Riyadh.

In effect, every Gulf state with the exception of Saudi Arabia has close ties with Iran, and their leaders believe that in light of the failed war in Yemen and the failure to solve the crisis in Syria, it’s preferable to mend the rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

One of the reasons the “Iranian option” is being pursued by the Gulf states is the absence of a clear American policy regarding Iran. This specifically refers to Trump’s hesitation over imposing new sanctions on Iran, and the assertion by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran is observing the clauses of the nuclear agreement in full.

It’s too early to tell whether the attempts at rapprochement will be productive, especially when there is no certainty that Rohani will win the presidential election (scheduled for late May).

But these overtures, which include official visits by Rohani to Kuwait and Oman, and an upcoming visit to Turkey in April, should make it clear to Israel that the equation it is selling – to the effect that peace with the Gulf states will lead to the reining-in of Iran – is not necessarily based on realistic foundations.

That's because the Gulf states, which support the two-state solution, are not adopting the Israeli equation. For them, Palestine is one issue, and their ties with Iran are another.

It's doubtful whether Saudi Arabia and its partners in the Gulf need a film by a Saudi-U.S. lobbyist in order to be convinced of the “menace in disguise” posed by Iran.

A copious amount of material on the subject is published daily in the pages of the Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, in a special section called “Iran’s Crimes Around the World.” But when a Saudi newspaper sees Iranian cinema as such a great threat, maybe the threat from Iran isn’t so bad after all.