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Syria’s crisis helps warm relations between Riyadh and Tehran

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran seem today willing to take extra steps to reach a compromise

Image Credit: AFP
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his delegation is met by Saudi Prince Khalid Al Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, governor of Makkah upon their arrival in Jeddah on Monday.
Gulf News

Dubai: The effect of the ongoing crisis in Syria for nearly 17 months has travelled thousands of miles and started influencing diplomatic relations between Sunni-Saudi Arabia and Shiite-Iran, analysts and political experts say.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran, who have long been locked in political and religious differences, seem today willing to take extra steps to reach a compromise, they added.

They expressed their keenness to keep their communication channels open, amid the increase in Western pressure to bring down the regime of Bashar Al Assad, Iran’s only Arab ally.

Saudi Arabia and Iran, who have been long locked in political and religious differences, seem today willing to take extra steps to meet in the middle, they added.

One of the Saudi steps was inviting Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the two-day Islamic summit in Makkah, held by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) which concluded on Wednesday.

In his opening speech Saudi Arabia King’s Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz called for “solidarity, tolerance and moderation” to bridge what is seen as a widening gap between the different sects in Islam.

“The Islamic nation is currently living in a state of sedition and disunity that led to bloodshed of its people in this holy month,” King Abdullah said, according to official Saudi news agency SPA.

King Abdullah also called for the establishment of a “centre for dialogue”.

“I suggest hereby the establishment of a centre for dialogue among Islamic sects to come to common terms with the city of Riyadh as its headquarters and, upon recommendation by the Secretariat General and the Ministerial Council, its members be selected from within the Islamic summit conference,” King Abdullah added.

The OIC has 57 member states and they represent an estimated 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide.

Some reports noted that Saudi Arabia has used the summit as an opportunity to reach out to Iran, while the summit coincides with a rising tension between Iran and its Arab neighbouring countries over several issues, including positions vis-a-vis fighting in Syria, Iran’s controversial nuclear programme, and the “interference” in Arab Gulf countries’ affairs, and fomenting the instability of their countries by backing Shiite protests in some Arab Gulf countries, mainly Bahrain and the Eastern province in Saudi Arabia.

“In my opinion, this is not a rapprochement,” said Mohammad Abbas Naji, an expert in Iranian affairs at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Strategic Studies Centre. “I believe this is an attempt not to cut the communication channels between the two sides, which geography imposed [on] their neighbourhood,” Naji told Gulf News.

Both Saudi and the rest of Arab Gulf countries and Iran are keen not to see their political relations hit a “dead-end”, added Naji in reference to the recent warmth in relations between the two sides — another sign being the recent Bahraini announcement to reinstate its Ambassador to Iran after nearly 17 months.

On the other hand, Iran earlier invited the Saudi leader, though not through sending a special envoy like the rest of invited leaders, to take part in the upcoming summit for non-aligned movement countries in Tehran later in August.

“It is obvious that the decision maker in Iran is smart,” said Wahid Hamzah Hashim, political science professor at the Jeddah-based King Abdul Aziz University.

“It is imperative [for Iran] to keep the bridges of communication open with the GCC, Arab world and the whole Islamic world,” he told Gulf News, adding that this comes while the “Western powers headed by the US are determined to bring down the regime of Bashar Al Assad.”


US-educated Saudi professor agreed with other analysts in saying that what is bringing Iran and the GCC closer is more of a “tactic” rather than a real rapprochement under the current circumstances.

The differences between the two are much deeper and more complicated, analysts added.

While some analysts believe that Iran will continue its attempts to give preference to the political solution in the Syrian crisis, the GCC spoke of supporting the Syrian Free Army, which is spearheading the revolution. The GCC is also taking a clear stand against Al Assad’s violent way of handling the protests.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia, analysts say, is working to keep the channels with Iran open for religious, geographic and strategic reasons, said Hashim.

“Saudi Arabia doesn’t want to see Iran a destroyed country. It wants Iran to be a peaceful neighbouring country,” Hashim told Gulf News.

Some believe the recent moves between Iran and the GCC is related to efforts to release the 48 Iranian hostages taken by the Free Syrian Army, but others don’t agree.

The Iranian hostages are members of the Revolutionary Guards, the Syrian opposition said. Iran, however, said they are ordinary citizens who travelled to Syria to visit holy sites.

Meanwhile, some experts in Iranian affairs expressed their scepticism of any change and they prefer to wait and see how Iran will react to the Arab Gulf countries stand towards the Syrian crisis.

“Ahmadinejad could postpone his fiery statements against the Arab and Islamic countries, which adopt the Saudi stance from the Syrian crisis to the summit in Tehran (Non-Aligned Movement summit),” wrote Mohammad Al Salmi, a Saudi researcher in Iranian studies wrote in a recent article.

“He could launch a fierce [verbal] attack on Saudi….. only the coming days will give answers to questions about Iran’s foreign policy,” he added.