Confused signals from the Saudi/Iranian front.
Middle East’s two Islamic “superpowers” are competitors for the religious leadership of the Muslim world is well recognized. Saudi Arabia, a key Arab state, contains both Mecca and within its borders and is the guardian of the Sunni tradition of Islam. Its lack of affinity with Medina is acute. The Islamic Republic of Iran is not an Arab but a Persian state, its native language is not Arabic but Farsi, and it proclaims itself the custodian of the Shi’ite branch of Islam. Iran
The Sharia law that each claims as its legal framework varies considerably between the two. Iran’s version incorporates both the “Hadd” penal code of unalterable punishments for certain crimes and “jihad” – a call for Holy War which incorporates the obligation to convert the unfaithful.
For the past three decades, ever since the Islamic Republic of Iran began spreading its wings, the two states have pursued radically different political and religious paths.
Iran has declared that Western-style democracies in general, and the United States and in particular, are the devil incarnate. They and those who support them, from whatever source – even from within Islam – are legitimate targets for terrorist attack. On the other hand Israel supports all those who oppose these representatives of Satan – even Muslims from the normally derided Sunni sects. Thus Iran Iran has armed, financed and sustained not only Shia-based Hezbollah in Lebanon, but Sunni, Muslim Brotherhood Hamas in . Gaza
But the politics of the Middle East are an ever-shifting kaleidoscope, and the old pattern is mutating before our eyes, initiated by the
’s perceptible change of gear in the region. Abandoning established political attitudes expected of US , the Obama administration has clearly decided to stake its reputation on embracing diplomacy and dialogue as the method of choice in tackling some of the intractable problems of the region, and absorbing the deleterious consequences. Washington
Consequences there have been. The new approach – applied to the Israel-Palestine dispute, to Bashar Assad and his chemical weapons, to
Iran and its nuclear development program, and now to the resolution of the Syrian civil war – has undoubtedly dented the ’s image in the Arab world. With the US US on the back foot, has clearly decided to extend to the Arab world in general the “charm offensive” deployed with such success against the West by President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Iran
Writing in the Saudi-owned daily Asharq Al-Awsat, recently, Iran’s foreign minister Zarif said: “notwithstanding the focus on our interactions with the West, the reality is that our primary foreign policy priority is our region.” He then undertook a tour of
Gulf states Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in an attempt to persuade them that a deal between Iran and Western powers on 's nuclear program would enhance regional stability. Almost anything could be read into the notable omission of Tehran from his itinerary. but Zarif was careful to post on his Facebook page a note to the effect that he was ready for negotiations with Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia whenever was ready, adding that talks would be “beneficial for both countries, the region and the Muslim world.” Riyadh
Had relations with the
US not deteriorated as they have done, this extension of Iran’s charm offensive would surely have cut little ice in . In the changed circumstances, it has not been written off. Speaking on his return to Washington from a recent visit to the kingdom, Richard LeBaron, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former US ambassador to Kuwait, said that Saudi Arabia is expected “in the next few months” to begin diplomatic engagements with Iran to “test the waters.” Saudi Arabia
The former ambassador said that the kingdom is beginning to think through its options. “If they think the scenario is going to emerge where the
United States is going to have improved relations with Iran, I think they’ll want to hedge their own bets and test Rouhani’s indication that he believes, for example, that improvement of relations with should be an Iranian priority.” Saudi Arabia
Soon after the interim agreement with
Iran was announced in , the Saudi Arabian cabinet issued a statement welcoming its implications: “The government of the kingdom sees that if there was goodwill, this agreement could represent a preliminary step towards a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear program. The kingdom hopes the agreement will be followed by further steps that would guarantee the rights of all states in the region to peaceful nuclear energy.” Geneva
The final words may be more significant than at first appears, for Barry Pavel, another official with the Atlantic Council group, said that during their meetings in the kingdom they were told that if Iran reaches a nuclear capability, Saudi Arabia would go to the US “or other countries” to develop their own nuclear capabilities.” For “other countries”, read
The words that the poet Tennyson puts into the mouth of the dying King Arthur spring to mind:
The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways…
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 10 December 2013:http://www.jpost.com/Experts/Saudi-Arabia-Iran-and-the-nuclear-deal-334550?prmusr=pTZXKRLEJ5v%2bkyg0JCqD79WiY81b%2f3dCjpx8Rm5NpK%2bhiydJX8KPv3lsY5fU%2fvJj
Published in the Eurasia Review, 8 December 2013: