Iran-Saudi Détente, Requisite of Regional Peace

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Tehran, Riyadh need minimum understanding on common interests

Interview with Mohammad Shariati Dehaqan
Middle East Expert

Q: The government of Saudi Arabia has introduced Abdulrahman Al-Shahri, the former chief of the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s Security Department, as its new ambassador to Iran. He is well known for his background in Saudi security services. What impact will selection of a former security agent as new ambassador have on relations between Tehran and Riyadh? Will this appointment give a security quality to diplomatic relations between the two countries?

A: At present, there is a lot of media propaganda, both direct and indirect, against Saudi Arabia [in Iran]. The situation has so exacerbated that even the recent assassination of the former Lebanese official, Mohammad Shatah, was blamed on Saudi Arabia and its agents. By saying this, I am by no means trying to connote that everything that the Saudi media say is accurate. This is true because a highly charged negative atmosphere governs that country’s media outlets as well. Both sides (Iran and Saudi Arabia) should feel the need to improve bilateral relations because good neighborly relations will be both to the benefit of Iran and Saudi Arabia just in the same way that tension in those relations will be to the detriment of both countries. As for the choice of Saudi ambassador, there are many stages which should be passed before an ambassador is chosen and introduced to another country. The host country will ask for many kinds of information from personal data of the ambassador to other information in order to accept the other country’s envoy. The ambassador who is introduced to represent his/her country in another country should be a powerful character with enough influence in their own country, so that, they would be able to infuse new energy in disturbed and stagnant relations between the two states. In other words, the new Saudi ambassador should be able to revive the good relations that existed between Tehran and Riyadh under [former Iranian presidents] Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. Other issues, such as security or political backdrop of the ambassador are only secondary concerns.

Q: One of the most common speculations about the new Saudi ambassador to Iran is that high tension in relations between Tehran and Riyadh has prompted Saudi Arabia to look for solutions in order to solve bilateral problems and differences over such regional issues as the ongoing situation in Syria, Lebanon and so forth. To what extent, Saudi Arabia is actually trying to reduce tension in its relations with Iran in view of what has already happened in the region and the positions that it has adopted on certain regional issues, which were the opposite of Iran's positions, especially on the situation in Syria?

A: It is my feeling that the existing tension in relations has its roots both in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Of course, during his recent visits to some regional states, [the new Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif has talked about his intent to pay an official visit to Saudi Arabia and hold meetings with that country’s officials. However, such a visit has not become possible so far due to special circumstances that exist in both countries, especially because of the deteriorating health conditions of Saudi King Abdullah. Therefore, it is quite natural from a diplomatic viewpoint that such a visit will not be possible under the existing conditions. I don’t know what may happen in the future. The way that both countries of Iran and Saudi Arabia are currently treating each other is not appropriate. If the existing differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are solved though a diplomatic process, then all other regional issues and crises from Yemen and Bahrain to Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria would be solved. Reaching understanding on common interests and sufficing to realizing a minimum of both countries’ interests is the silver bullet which will solve many problems.

Q: Some sources believe that recent spate of suicide attacks in Lebanon has been aimed at fanning the flames of religious and ethnic differences in that country with Saudi Arabia being the main mastermind behind those attacks. They allege that Saudi Arabia is trying, through such operations, to force Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement to desist their support for the Syrian government of [President Bashar] Assad. Will these measures be sufficient to make Iran and Hezbollah give up their support for Assad?

A: There is no doubt about the escalation of religious conflicts between Shias and Sunnis in the region. However, it is not totally clear what factors are behind this escalation and what are the respective shares of Iran and Saudi Arabia in this regard. At present, they are alleging that Iran is lending its support to Shias in the region while Saudi Arabia is throwing its weight behind Sunnis. However, it needs meticulous studies and research to shed more light on this issue and clarify if such conflicts are natural or a result of the suicide operations carried out by the extremist groups and presence of such groups in the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia should opt for diplomacy in order to reduce the existing tensions in the region. However, whether these conflicts can be eliminated or not would depend on many factors, especially on efforts made by enemies of the regional countries that will spare no endeavor in order to intensify the existing tensions and conflicts.

Q: Following the recent wave of bomb attacks in Lebanon, a terrorist called Majed Al-Majed was apprehended and introduced as the leader of the extremist Abdullah Azzam Brigades. He was introduced as the main protagonist behind bomb attacks in Lebanon, but a short while after his arrest, news about his death in detention were released under suspicious circumstances. Since then, some analysts have charged Saudi Arabia with having supported that terrorist and using his group to carry out the bomb attacks. They claimed that after his detention, Saudi agents killed Al-Majed in order to prevent military and security officials of Lebanon from getting their hands on the trove of precious information that he had. Why, in your opinion, such analyses are made which attribute these whole set of issues to Saudi Arabia and has Saudi Arabia actually played a direct role in this regard?

A: To pass a better judgment in this regard, we must try to get as far away from the dominant atmosphere created by media propaganda as possible. After taking part in the war [against the former Soviet Union] in Afghanistan, Majed Al-Majed has been in Iran for a while. The Iranian media, however, allege that the security services of Saudi Arabia have been playing a role in facilitating terrorist operations in the region and supporting Majed Al-Majed. Majed, on the other hand, has been on an official list of most wanted criminals in Saudi Arabia. He had also fled Lebanon after what happened in [Palestinian refugee camp of] Nahr al-Bared [in northern Lebanon]. Therefore, it is very difficult to pass a judgment on whether the security services of Saudi Arabia have been behind all these developments or not. This needs more time. As for the suspicious death of Majed in Beirut prison, Lebanese officials have clearly announced that nothing has been suspicious about his death. These officials are more under the influence of the Lebanese Hezbollah than March 14 Alliance. Therefore, when they have categorically announced that his death has not taken place under suspicious circumstances, all this propaganda hue and cry about his death being suspicious does not seem to be appropriate. I think raising doubts about his death will be equal to raising questions about the authority of the Lebanese government.

Q: The Russian President [Vladimir Putin] has shown a very sharp reaction to these attacks and has described Saudi Arabia as a terrorist state. Do you think that such a viewpoint by the Russian president against Saudi Arabia has its roots in the regional behavior of Riyadh, including its possible role in suicide operations carried out in Russia and elsewhere in the region?

A: This is an old issue. Saudi Arabia has been long accused of having a hand in terrorist developments in Russia’s Chechnya and other regions. Aid was publicly collected during Friday Prayers ceremonies in Saudi Arabia for these regions, including Chechnya. Relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia have changed and, at the moment, their differences have taken a new turn. On the other hand, some of the allegations made in this regard are overtly exaggerated. What has been quoted from Mr. Putin has not been covered by all media outlets and Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has shown no official reaction to such reports. There have been also reports circulating about a meeting between Putin and [the current secretary general of Saudi Arabia’s National Security Council] Bandar Bin Sultan. The differences between Saudi Arabia and Russia have existed since a long time ago due to the support that Riyadh has lent to militant groups that are involved in armed struggles against the government of Russia. However, it is not clear to what extent such differences can be resolved through diplomatic channels.

Q: Some people believe that measures taken by Saudi Arabia are the outcome of a recent agreement [reached between Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers] in the Swiss city of Geneva [last November]. Saudi Arabia is somehow feeling threatened [by that agreement] and sees its regional standing being undermined. Therefore, it is sparing no effort in order to continue to play its role both as the big brother among Arab countries and as a regional power. To what extent such factors can be considered as a cause for the current regional behavior of Saudi Arabia?

A: Although Saudi Arabia has issued an official statement welcoming the Geneva agreement, a review of media reports will show that this country is actually not happy about the agreement. There are two ways to deal with such positions taken by Saudi Arabia. One way is to answer Saudi Arabia’s disgruntlement with disgruntlement, which will certainly increase tension in bilateral relations. The other way is what Mr. Zarif has done in asking for meetings with Saudi officials. No more fuel should be added to the flames of disagreement, which will further disturb the two countries’ relations. There is no doubt about the fact that Saudi Arabia is to blame for the current state of its relations with the Islamic Republic. However, this should not be taken as a ground for the discontinuation of relations. Many years ago, following the massacre of Iranian Hajj pilgrims in Mecca, political relations with Saudi Arabia were totally severed. After a while, however, both sides reached the conclusion that it was to their mutual benefit to have rational relations. Rational relations do not mean that either of the two sides should do everything that the other side expects. However, it means that while having cordial relations, each side should do its best to protect its interests and insist on its positions as well.

Key Words: Iran-Saudi Détente, Regional Peace, Common Interests, Media Propaganda, Syria, Lebanon, Hezbollah, Bomb Attacks, Majed Al-Majed, Russia, Geneva Agreement, Shariati Dehaqan

Source: Iranian Diplomacy (IRD)
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

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