In what can only be described as a momentous sign that Saudi Arabia can no longer defeat Iran’s ambitions to rebuild its Persian Empire, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal on May 13th told a news conference in Riyadh that his Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had been invited to visit the kingdom. Prince Saud was quoted as saying “any time that [Zarif] sees fit to come, we are willing to receive him. Iran is a neighbor, we have relations with them and we will negotiate with them, we will talk with them.” By opening diplomatic talks, formerly mortal enemies Tehran and Riyadh hope to use diplomacy to bring tensions down to a more manageable level.
The public comment is the first time the Saudis have said anything about Zarif – or any Iranian official – formally visiting the kingdom. In the past only former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who led Iran during the Iran/Iraq War, had expressed interest in such a visit. But since more moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took office in August of 2013 and his government began negotiating with the United States on the nuclear issues, Tehran has shown an interest in reaching out to Riyadh as a way to prevent the Saudis from further undermining their affairs.
According to Stratfor Intelligence, the Saudis and the Iranians cooperated last week in the back-channel agreement for the evacuation of Syrian rebels from the encircled city of Homs. Saudi Arabia has not had an interest in engaging with Iran on a strategic level, while their “main regional rival being a global pariah.” But now that the Iranians are on their way toward international rehabilitation, the Saudis are being forced to consider how to come to terms with a different reality on the ground.
The new Iranian government has been working with Iran’s second-most influential cleric, former President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has enjoyed a unique relationship with the Saudis despite decades of their nation’s mutual hostility. Recently, the Iranian ambassador to Riyadh met with Rafsanjani, where it was likely agreed upon to publicly pursue a official diplomatic engagement.
It seems clear to the Saudis that the nuclear deal is likely to slowly progress. Since Iran’s return to the “world stage is inevitable,” Riyadh can no longer simply ignore them. Secondly, the Saudis believe that the Rouhani government will operate less as an extension of the clerical establishment led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and will keep the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps under government control. Third, there has been an unexpected mutual convergence of interests regarding Syria.
Saudi Arabia has recently begun a major campaign to challenge transnational Jihadist forces in Syria, including the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and Jabhat al-Nusra. The Saudis will instead cultivate relatively less extreme Salafist-Jihadist forces. Although the Iranians are still wary of the Syrian Sunni rebels in general, Iran sees this as a welcome step given the threat posed by transnational Jihadist groups to their allies in Iraq and Lebanon. The Saudis also accept that their proxy war against the Syrian regime has been frustrated due to the rogue transnational Jihadist attacks on rebels. The Saudis have also failed to convince the United States to commit enough new resources to topple Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime.
Saudi Arabia now finds itself over-committed in battling too many internal and external foes. Iran is the ascendant power in the region and Saudi Arabia has decided to try as Stratfor states, “to set foot on the diplomatic path in regard to Iran.” Neither the Saudis nor the Iranians have any desire for a full peace after 40 years of mutual harassment. But the two dominant players in the Islamic World have chosen to call a diplomatic time- out from hostility.
The author welcomes feedback and will respond to comments by readers