According to Arab News, (June 2, 2014) a high official in the Obama administration is “encouraging Riyadh and Tehran to end their dispute.” This was quoted in Kuwait’s Al-Rai Arabic daily in an interview with an unnamed U.S. diplomat. Meanwhile, the Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Sabah ended his visit to Tehran.
Last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh in a quest to establish a détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Hagel got his cue from earlier remarks made by Iran’s President Rouhani, suggesting that Iran would like to improve its ties with Saudi Arabia.
It seems that the Obama administration is now serving as an agent for Iran. The Islamic Republic that has encouraged street demonstrations calling for “death to America,” is the same regime that has been working hard to remove U.S. influence in the region. Iran is an oppressive and radical Islamic state backing the Assad regime in Syria which murdered over 200,000 of its own people, and used chemical agents to poison thousands of innocent civilians. The Obama administration has hitherto not been able to stop the Tehran regime from producing advanced centrifuges. Iran has continued its quest for nuclear weapons, despite its ongoing nuclear talks with the P5+1 (U.S. China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany).
Saudi-Iranian reconciliation talks are scheduled to take place in the middle of June, and the Obama administration hopes for a new era in the relationship between the two Gulf powers. The Saudis are less than thrilled about the impending talks. Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi political analyst, is skeptical about the talks, pointing out that “Iran has occupied Syria,” and is backing the Assad regime. He added that, the “Iranians want to drag us into an extended dialogue and divert attention from the core issue of Syria.”
Iran’s mouthpiece, Press TV reported (April 27, 2014) that Saudi Foreign Minister, Saud al-Faisal will be removed from his post in a second phase of changes in the ruling family’s key positions. It also revealed that on April 15, 2014, Saudi King Abdullah has replaced Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief with Youssef al-Idrisi. Press TV added that Bandar, the former Saudi ambassador to the U.S., is known to have had close ties with former U.S. President George W. Bush, and that he was an advocate of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The Iranian interpretation that is apparently stemming from Press TV is that President Obama, in seeking to reverse his predecessor’s (G.W. Bush) foreign policy, has persuaded the Saudis to get rid of the anti-Iranian elements among the Kingdom’s leadership. Apparently, this has resulted in the removal of Prince Bandar, and the impending retirement of Saud al-Faisal.
It was Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal who, in a December, 2009 interview with the New York Times said, “Iran should never be allowed to have nuclear weapons.” He also added that he was suspicious of Iran’s claims to be pursuing a peaceful nuclear program.
Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of fomenting unrest among the Shia majority in Bahrain, its close neighbor, and the Shia minority in its own Eastern Province. In addition, the Saudis have charged the Islamic Republic of Iran of plotting to assassinate its ambassador in Washington in 2011.
Iran’s efforts to cozy up to the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia in particular, are aimed at isolating Israel and preventing what has been rumored to be a secret Israeli-Saudi understanding that would enable Israel to use Saudi airspace in an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Thus, in the meeting between Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Sabah, the former sounded “conciliatory.” According to Iranian state TV, which quoted Khamenei as saying that regional security “depends on good relations among all countries in the region, and that differences between them will only benefit their common enemies,” appears to be a veiled reference to Israel and the U.S.
In entering negotiations and signing the interim nuclear agreement with the P5+1, Iran has neutralized the U.S. and its allies from using the military option against it. This one-sided détente between the U.S. and Iran has apparently convinced the Saudis to change course. Pressured by its so-called ally, the U.S., to improve relations with Iran, Riyadh has realized that it is time to play along with Washington. MSNBC headlined it (May 15, 2014) “Admission of defeat.” In sending an invitation to his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal welcomed him to come to Riyadh “anytime he chooses.” Explaining the Saudis reversal regarding Iran, Al Faisal said “Iran is a neighbor, we have relations with them, and we will negotiate with them.”
U.S. President Obama has articulated a revised approach to the Middle East. The U.S. will no longer seek to isolate Iran but will instead attempt to “get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion” to foster a “new equilibrium” between Iran and Saudi Arabia that will be marked by “competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”
Secretary of State, John Kerry may not have realized it when he put “all the eggs in the Israeli-Palestinian peace basket,” that no bilateral relationship in the Middle East is more consequential for the region’s future and U.S. interests than the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran. These two regional powers are on opposite sides on virtually every single issue, both vying for power and influence in the Persian Gulf, the Levant (in Syria, Iran supports the Assad regime and Hezbollah while the Saudis support the Sunni rebels in Syria and the anti-Hezbollah forces in Lebanon), the Palestinian territories (the Saudis support Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, and the Two-State solution, while the Iranians back Hamas and reject the Two-State solution), and Iraq (Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is an Iranian ally, while the Saudis support the Sunni rebels). They are also in competition within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). In addition to these conflicting interests, there are the ethnic (Arab versus Persian) and sectarian (Sunni Saudi Arabia versus Shiite Iran) differences.
There are also two other factors. Iran and Saudi Arabia have radically different forms of government and advance divergent visions for Middle Eastern order. They also have a major disagreement on the American presence in the region. The Saudis have been allied with the U.S. and seek its presence in the region. The Islamic Republic of Iran, on the other hand, wishes to expel the U.S. from the region.
It is for this reason alone that the Obama administration’s attempt to foster a détente with Iran and bring the Saudis and the Iranians closer is confounding if not disturbing. In legitimizing Iran, the Obama administration is either naïve in its belief that it can change the nature of the Iranian regime, or miscalculating in its attempt to create a “new equilibrium.” Iran will continue to support Hezbollah and Hamas’ terror against Israel, and deny Israel’s right to exist. The Tehran regime is also likely to come up short on the nuclear deal with the U.S. and its allies. These are the issues that the U.S. Congress, if not the Obama administration, will eventually find difficult in normalizing relations with Iran. It would also impede on President Obama’s efforts to affect a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Regardless of the Obama administration’s goodwill toward Iran, the Islamic Republic is unlikely to fall in love with the “Great Satan.”
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