Ahmadinejad’s unprecedented overture to the Saudis?

Source: Mehr NewsDate: 09 September 2011

In an interview with a group of Kuwaiti reporters, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a glimpse of Iran’s new foreign policy initiatives in the wake of the Arab Spring, which has reached Iran’s doorstep via the uprisings in Syria.

Stating that “The problems of the region do not have roots in regional issues”, he blamed “Western strategy” for poor relations between regional states and said that Iran “disagreed with the presence and interference of outside powers in the region”. He offered Iran as an honest broker which, having “recognized this issue, has attempted to bridge these gaps in its own way”.

Highlighting his own role in the effort to create unity among regional and Islamic countries, Ahmadinejad repeatedly emphasized the themes of “friendly relations”, “brotherhood”, “common interests and enemies” and “cooperation”:

“As the representative of this country I have travelled to all of the Arab nations of the region and extended a brotherly hand toward them. Friendly and honest relations based on brotherhood with Muslim countries of the region is the firm, clear and unchanging policy of the Islamic Republic…I have participated in the session of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council as a brother and declared the region’s countries have common interests and enemies.”

He carried these themes over to his discussion of Iran’s nuclear program, trying to reassure regional countries about his country’s good intentions and safety measures by inviting them to actively observe Iran’s nuclear work and even participate:

“We have often declared, and do so once again, that all of the region’s countries are welcome to send their experts to Iran so that they can not only inspect the Bushehr nuclear reactor and other atomic and enrichment centers of Iran, but also to study conditions and technical documentation so that they can understand the level of Iran’s atomic safety. As to convincing their own countries in this regard… Iran sees its own advances and capabilities as belonging to all of its cultural and religious brothers in the region, and is fully prepared to put these capabilities at the disposal of all of the regional countries, because Iran takes pride in the advancement and security of Kuwait, the Emirates, [Saudi] Arabia, Bahrain, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Morocco, Algeria and other Islamic countries.”

Turning to the embattled Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, Ahmadinejad took a measured tone toward Turkey which is viewed by Iran as trying to topple its Syrian ally:

“Turkey is among our brothers and dear friends, but regardless, when enemies install a missile shield there and assert that this is an action against Iran, we must be aware.”

He suggested that the best way to approach the uprising in Syria was by trying to build a regional consensus on what action should be taken and then implementing it:

“Iran is prepared to hold a meeting with Islamic countries, and after we reach a consensus, to run to the aid of Syria with the utmost haste. Islamic countries must be independent from outsiders in order to resolve Syria’s problems and reach consensus because such an event may occur in another Arab country in the future and then it will be necessary to draw from such experiences.”

Perhaps the Iranian president’s most telling statements were his overtures toward Saudi Arabia, which is the leader of the anti-Iranian camp in the Persian Gulf:

“Iran and [Saudi] Arabia are two important countries that cannot be in opposition to each other, and neither of these countries can be excluded from [having] its political share in the region. If Iran and [Saudi] Arabia stand side-by-side, all of the Islamic world will benefit from it…If the region’s countries are united, the Zionist regime will no longer be able to exist in the region and abrasively kill Palestinians, Lebanese, and Egyptians…We believe that deep and friendly relations between Egypt, Iran and [Saudi] Arabia can change the course of the last 300 years of the region’s history.”

As a concrete example of what regional and Islamic cooperation could do, Ahmadinejad suggested the creation of an Islamic bank to foster economic development:

“If Islamic countries unite and establish an Islamic bank and invest their money in it, they shall take hold of the global economy and none will be able to compete against them.”

Editor’s note: As we discussed in our analysis on 28 August 2011, the Arab Spring has created both opportunities and dangers for Iran. While early on these tumultuous revolutions appeared to be in Iran’s favour, with the seeming victory of NATO in Libya and the growing uprising in Syria, Iran is increasingly in a position where it may become more and more vulnerable. To this end, Iran’s diplomatic machinery has begun working in overdrive on a host of regional and international issues. Internationally these issues include Iran’s nuclear program where it has recently made efforts to move toward a resolution on several fronts including engaging with Russia’s “step-by-step” proposal. Regionally, the very warm tone of this interview reveals that Iran feels it must now move toward some kind of understanding or even détente with Saudi Arabia, its chief regional rival in the Persian Gulf, and a competitor in the wider Middle East.

This competition has been ongoing since at least the early 1980s, when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), and formed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a shield against Iranian encroachment in the Persian Gulf. Given the longevity of this conflict, what could an understanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran look like? To begin, Iran could agree to take a hands-off approach toward the tumult in the Persian Gulf. This may be especially crucial to Saudi Arabia in Bahrain, where anti-government protests convinced the Saudis to invade in order to prevent the al-Khalifa regime’s collapse, and Yemen, where a similar conflagration could destabilize Saudi Arabia in the south and eastern oil producing regions.

By conceding to the status-quo in the Persian Gulf, Iran may want Saudi Arabia and its allies to acknowledge Iran’s rising power in the wider Middle East, particularly Syria, where worsening of the current situation could create problems for Iran on two fronts. First, if Syria falls, Iran could lose its most secure access to its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza, and thus its ability to strike at Israel, weakening its regional strategic leverage. Second, Iran must be looking with great consternation at events in Libya, where the success of the NATO mission (at least for the time being) may lead to the replication of the humanitarian military intervention model elsewhere. Whilst the military option for Syria does not appear to be a serious one at this point, if the downward spiral continues it may look more and more attractive. For Iran, Syria is not simply an ally, but a link in its defensive armour. An attack on Syria would not only weaken its defenses, but open the road to a future US military strike on Iran as well. Given the importance of Saudi Arabia in Arab politics and its historic role in Syria, a Saudi-Iranian understanding may provide Iran with the means of preserving the al-Assad regime.

Iran appears to be making overtures to Saudi Arabia, and only time will tell if this could lead to some kind of understanding or in a different direction entirely. If this scenario is accurate, we should not be too surprised if Iran begins making direct overtures to other regional powers as well, namely Turkey.