Are the Saudis and the Iranians patching things up, even as the US tries to foment regional tension between Sunnis and Shiites in order to build US support for an aggressive policy toward Iran?
The headlines certainly suggest as much. Reuters reports:
Iran asked Saudi Arabia to help ease tensions between the Islamic Republic and the United States as Washington held out the possibility of “engagement” with Tehran if it changed tack in Iraq.
A letter was delivered by [Ali Larijani] Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator to the Saudi King from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Saudi official said on Monday. The official said Iran wanted Saudi leaders to relay a goodwill message to Washington.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry has subsequently denied the report and called “baseless” the claim that Iran asked Riyadh to mediate between Iran and the US.
But the real problem with the “detente” scenario may be that it assumes that foreign policy is directed by a unified actor each of the three countries: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. It would likely be far more accurate to say that some Saudis and some Iranians want to patch things up, even as some in the US press for a more aggressive policy toward Iran.
The factions in Iran are complex, but most reports that bother to even note the possibility of internal fissures make clear that Ali Larijani represents an Iranian faction that favors improved relations with the Saudis. The Reuters report about the Iranian Foreign Ministry, for example, presents Larijani as a factional player:
Larijani’s visit came shortly before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday, as part of a Middle East tour. Rice and other U.S. leaders have put a fresh emphasis on checking Iran’s influence in Iraq and elsewhere.
Larijani’s visit, said Iranian political scientist Nasser Hadian-Jazy, “is a counter move to what Secretary Rice is going to do to unite the Arabs against Iran.”
But he said it also shows the renewed influence of moderate conservatives, like Larijani, amid growing public criticism of Ahmadinejad and his anti-U.S. speeches that are seen to have exacerbated tensions, particularly over the nuclear file.
Some politicians and officials say Larijani and other moderate officials are frustrated by Ahmadinejad, who they say has provoked confrontation and made it more difficult for Iran to secure what it calls its “nuclear rights”.
“In a calm and quiet atmosphere, Iran can neutralise America’s pressure on its atomic work. Fiery speeches worsen the situation,” said one official, who asked not to be identified because of sensitivity of the issue.
Ahmadinejad may not be the most powerful figure in Iran, where the final say rests with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but Western diplomats say his provocative public tone has helped drive a tougher line.
Factional United States
The outline of key factional lines within the US represent a split among Right Arabists with figures like James Baker and Flynt Leverett eager to find a way to do business at least some element of the incumbent regime in Iran and Right Arabists like James Akins who are very hawkish on Iran.
WALLACE: What’s the message that you’re sending to Iran? And how tough are you prepared to get?
CHENEY: Well, I think it’s been pretty well-known that Iran is fishing in troubled waters, if you will, inside Iraq. And the president has responded to that, as you suggest. I think it’s exactly the right thing to do.
And Iran’s a problem in a much larger sense. They have begun to conduct themselves in ways that have created a great deal of tension throughout the region. If you go and talk with the Gulf states or if you talk with the Saudis or if you talk about the Israelis or the Jordanians, the entire region is worried, partly because of the conduct of Mr. Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, who appears to be a radical, a man who believes in an apocalyptic vision of the future and who thinks it’s imminent.
At the same time, of course, they’re pursuing the acquisition of nuclear weapons. They are in a position where they sit astride the Straits of Hormuz, where over 20 percent of the world’s supply of oil transits every single day, over 18 million barrels a day.
They use Hezbollah as a surrogate. And working through Syria with Hezbollah, they’re trying to topple the democratically elected government in [Lebanon]. Working through Hamas and their support for Hamas in Gaza, they’re interfering in the peace process.
So the threat that Iran represents is growing, it’s multi- dimensional, and it is, in fact, of concern to everybody in the region.
Factional Saudi Arabia
The most difficult factional battle to trace–on Iran and much else–is surely the struggle within the Saudi regime. Transparency is minimal and open source news analysis is surely inadequate and often simplistic.
The hypothesis that most recently made news as that Cheney and Prince Bandar–and perhaps Crown Prince Sultan–were joined in a hawkish alliance regarding Iran while Saudi King Abdullah–along with Foreign Minister Prince Saud and former Saudi Ambassador to the US Prince Turki–favored a more conciliatory approach toward Iran.
It is difficult, at the moment, to find much sunlight between Saudi royal factions. On his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s Ali Larijani met with all the key players, including Bandar. And according to official Iranian news, the Iranian Ambassador to Iran recently had an audience with Bandar’s father, Crown Prince Sultan.
Still, I suspect that the factionalism remains. An Associated Press report from January 8, 2007 speculated that tensions would re-appear by March because King Abdullah was expected to announce a cabinet reshuffle that would go to the heart of some of the battles for power within the Kingdom.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is considering a major Cabinet reshuffle soon, the first since he ascended to the throne of the oil-rich kingdom, diplomats and Saudi media said Monday.
The reshuffle may include key posts such as foreign minister, which has been held by Prince Saud al-Faisal for more than 30 years, and the influential oil minister, they said…
“It is up to the (king) to decide, and no one has the right to talk about that except him,” Crown Prince Sultan was quoted as saying in the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, which is owned by the Saudi royal family. “What he decides is good for all.”
It is rare for a royal family member to even refer to such an issue publicly and was viewed as a significant hint that changes are coming…
Saudis who have intimate knowledge of the discussions regarding the possible reshuffle said al-Faisal, who has had health problems, might be replaced by Crown Prince Sultan’s son Prince Bandar, a former ambassador to Washington and current secretary of the National Security Council. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.
The Saudi independent Internet news service, Elaph… said veteran Oil Minister Ali Naimi is among those expected to leave their posts. Naimi, 67 and an oil engineer, has been in his job for more than a decade…
The royal family and government leaders are believed to be deeply divided over how to handle the growing crisis in Iraq and Iran’s increasing regional influence.
If speculation about factional lines are correct, then the selection of Prince Bandar as Foreign Minister and the departure of Oil Minister Ali Naimi will both mark major victories for the factions most closely aligned with Cheney.
Taken together, these events would tend to undermine any spirit of detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Many questions remain, but at least one concerns Iraq. Would Bandar’s faction support a Shiite Iraq under the influence of Sistani, or would he demand–as his price for cooperation on Iran–the restoration of Sunni rule under an extra-constitutional “national salvation government,” i.e., an anti-Shiite coup?
For the record, I would not rule out the probability of a Bandar-Sistani axis.