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Saudi-Iran Talks Key to Resolving Middle East Wars

Posted September 16th, 2015 at 4:32 pm (UTC-4)
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By Barbara Slavin

As desperate migrants from wars in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East keep pouring onto the European continent, it is hard to imagine diplomatic solutions that can diminish this massive exodus anytime soon.

But if the wars are ever to end, one prerequisite is a willingness on the part of Saudi Arabia and its partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to discuss these crises with Iran.

During a panel discussion at the Atlantic Council on Monday, Nasser Hadian, a professor of political science at the University of Tehran who is close to the government of President Hassan Rouhani, said Iran has tried to reach out to the Saudis both privately and publicly but that its overtures have so far been rebuffed.

“They [the Saudis] have made up their minds [about Iran] and no matter what is happening, they have their own perspective,” Hadian said. He added that Iran does not regard Saudi Arabia as a threat but the Saudis see Iran as they primary regional foe. “We have to try to put to rest their concerns but that is not an easy thing to do,” Hadian said.

With the Republican-led Congress failing to block the nuclear agreement between Iran, the U.S. and the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, a key question is whether the extraordinary diplomacy that led to the deal can now be extended to try to resolve other regional crises.

According to Hadian, the Rouhani government believes that “the agreement would give us a chance to play a different role” in the region. However, the Saudis – under the leadership of a new king, Salman, and his 30-year-old son Mohammed, who is Saudi Arabia’s defense minister and deputy crown prince – have demanded that Iran forsake its allies, including Houthi rebels in Yemen and President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, is torn between a desire to reassure old allies in the Middle East and a recognition that Iran is the only regional country that has “boots on the ground” fighting the organization that calls itself the Islamic State (IS). A swift collapse of the Assad regime, for example, would likely deliver Damascus to IS, propelling even more millions of Syrians to flee and seek sanctuary in Europe.

What the Saudis and Americans might not know is that Iran’s own national security elite is divided about how aggressively to confront IS in the aftermath of the nuclear deal.

In a new paper, Hadian describes a debate in Tehran over foreign policy, with a minority of players advocating retrenchment and arguing that Iran is overstretched already and the war against Islamic State is not Iran’s to fight.

“By taking such a prominent role in fighting ISIS, they argue, Iran has essentially made itself a target for the group’s attacks,” Hadian writes. “If ISIS or similar groups have not exploded bombs in Tehran, Shiraz, Mashhad, or elsewhere, it is not because they do not have the capability, but simply because they have not yet decided to do so.”

While a majority of Iranian decision makers believe that Iran must remain involved in the affairs of its neighbors to offset the challenge from groups such as IS, the debate in Tehran could be influenced by the actions of others. If the Saudis, for example, did not regard the proxy conflicts in the region as a zero-sum game with Iran, there might be more room for political solutions, according to Haidan.

Iran and Saudi Arabia could begin with Yemen, the relatively easiest crisis to resolve in the region. Iran has no real national security interests there and backed the Houthis in part because it saw an opening to get back at the Saudis for their military intervention several years ago in Bahrain against a Shiite majority clamoring for more rights.

While the Houthis appear to have acted on their own in seizing the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, Iran’s support may have emboldened them and encouraged a civil war that is destroying one of the world’s poorest countries.

“Iran has a lot of explaining to do to the rest of the world,” Bilal Saab, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Monday, also ticking off Iran’s support for groups such as Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias that have committed acts of terrorism. While Iran’s conventional military prowess is modest, Saab said, its asymmetric powers are considerable and Iran has failed to “stabilize a single state” in the region. As a result, Saab said, anti-Iran sentiment among Arab states is at “an all-time high.”

Still, Saab said, “a set of useful conversations” between Iran and Saudi Arabia “is long overdue.”

The United States and GCC members with good relations with Iran, such as Oman, should facilitate these conversations starting at the UN General Assembly in New York later this month.

Syria is clearly another urgent priority. The Assad regime, which controls at most a quarter of the country, appears to be losing even more support. Russia, another major player there, is sending more arms, military advisers and troops to prop up the regime and contain IS. If the Russians were to agree to a transitional plan that eases out Assad at some future date, there could be a basis for a grand coalition against the Islamic extremists.

Meantime, the Saudis need to stop blaming every setback in the region on Iran and recognize their own contribution to violence and extremism through propagation of a fundamentalist strain of Islam. Saudi-financed madrassas in Iran’s neighbors, Afghanistan and Pakistan, have done much to radicalize local populations and instill hatred of Iranians and Shiite Muslims.

Some years ago, a very thoughtful Iranian newspaper publisher, Mohammad Atrianfar, told this reporter that when it comes to regional intervention, “We are not going to stretch our legs beyond the capacity of our carpets.”

Asked about this comment, Hadian noted that Iranians once covered every space of flooring with carpets but now the fashion is for fewer but finer rugs. The message: Iran is willing to accept a smaller footprint in the Middle East but only if it is included in the diplomacy and its interests are acknowledged.

(Barbara Slavin moderated the discussion at the Atlantic Council with Nasser Hadian and Bilal Saab)


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