by Jim Lobe
Paul Pillar has a blog up at the National Interest on the possibility that Saudi Arabia and Iran are moving toward some form of rapprochement. The latest development, as Paul points out, is the long-awaited invitation this week by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal to his Iranian counter part Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The Saudi-Iranian relationship is, of course, critical to any prospect of stabilizing the region, particularly the Levant, as Riyadh and Tehran have been the principal external supporters of the main protagonists in Syria’s catastrophic civil war. As noted by Paul, the Saudis’ decision to return their ambassador to Beirut offers another signal that they are interested in preventing the conflict next door from further destabilizing Lebanon, and perhaps a broader willingness to reduce Sunni-Shia tensions across the region.
Tom Lippman has been following the evolution of Saudi policy on this blog since last Fall when former and then-serving senior officials, including former Saudi ambassadors to Washington, Princes Bandar and Turki, were denouncing Obama’s failure to take strong military action against Syria after chemical weapons killed hundreds of people in a Damascus suburb last August. Beginning with Riyadh’s refusal to take its seat on the UN Security Council, you can find Tom’s analyses over the succeeding months here, here, and here.
At the end of March, however, Obama tacked on to his tour of Europe a stop in Riyadh for a meeting with King Abdullah, and while the press coverage of the visit maintained that things had gone poorly — Obama was greeted by lower-level officials and didn’t even get dinner — subsequent events suggest that there may indeed have been a certain meeting of the minds.
Thus, within a couple of weeks, Prince Bandar, reportedly much disliked by the Obama administration, was relieved of his post as the country’s intelligence chief — in which position he had been directing Saudi efforts to support the Syrian insurgency — while Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a favorite of Washington’s who had already replaced Bandar on Syria, appeared to have further boosted his position among the top policy-makers. Around the same time, the Obama administration announced that it was going through with the transfer of ten Apache helicopters to Egypt despite the military-backed regime’s deplorable human rights performance. Washington’s previous suspension of certain kinds of military assistance and cooperation with Cairo after the military coup that ousted the elected president, Mohammed Morsi, had infuriated Riyadh, which became and remains the regime’s most important financial backer and cheerleader.
Other U.S. gestures that may be meant to appease Saudi Arabia and put it in a more cooperative frame of mind include permitting the first-time delivery of advanced anti-tank, anti-armor TOW missiles (probably from Saudi Arabia’s own stocks, I am told) to allegedly carefully CIA-vetted “moderate” Syrian rebels, the upgrading of the Syrian Opposition Coalition’s (SOC) offices here to quasi-diplomatic status, and the reception of its president, Ahmad Jarba, here in Washington. Although he didn’t get the surface-to-air “MANPADs” he was seeking, Jarba did get a personal meeting with Obama, another sign of the kind of increased U.S. support — even if mainly symbolic — that Riyadh has been urging for months and months.
Moreover, we haven’t heard very many public complaints about U.S. policy in the region from Saudi princes since Obama’s visit. Meanwhile, Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel is in Jeddah for the first meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) “joint defense council” where he is no doubt assuring his hosts that Washington is not about to sell them out and will continue plying them with lots of very expensive and sophisticated weapons systems, as well as guarding their borders and sea lanes with U.S. firepower for the indefinite future.
As noted by Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the GCC meeting was made somewhat more confusing by a major shake-up in Saudi Arabia’s defense ministry that, among other things, saw the departure of Prince Bandar’s half-brother, Deputy Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Sultan, who, according to Henderson, was Bandar’s “perceived alter ego”, particularly with respect to Riyadh’s Syrian operations. Henderson speculates that all of this may have to do with the continuing maneuvering around the succession of King Abdullah, but its coincidence with the invitation to Zarif “suggest that Saudi Arabia may be reconsidering its regional strategy.” He places the emphasis on the “may” in that sentence, arguing “…it is almost certainly too early to say that the kingdom is softening its tough approach to Iran, especially after its unprecedented April 29 parade display of Chinese-supplied missiles capable of hitting Tehran — a gesture that followed the largest military exercise in Saudi history, involving 130,000 men.” On the other hand, I would add, one always wants to go into negotiations after a show of strength.
Although Paul doesn’t mention these latest events, they form a larger context in which to understand his argument. And, if, as Paul suggests, we are seeing an Iranian-Saudi rapprochement on the horizon, it’s pertinent to recall Obama’s own words about his ambitions for the region when he spoke with the New Yorker’s David Remnick earlier this year:
“It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” he told me. “And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.
In any event, here’s Paul’s post.
Photo: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shakes hands with Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Tehran, Abdul Rahman Bin Garman Al Shahri on March 3, 2014. Credit: ISNA/Hamid Forootan