Are Saudi Arabia and Iran coming close to each other? Observers say they have been engaged in a friendly dialogue since April this year. Iran’s former President Hassan Rouhani had launched this dialogue. His successor Ebrahim Raisi has continued it. Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has claimed the dialogue is on the right track. All this, however, is highly unlikely to cut much ice.
The friction between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shia-majority Iran has been deep-rooted in their divergent interpretations of Islam. Saudi Arabia considers itself a “guardian” of Islam and its two holiest mosques. Riyadh cut off its ties with Tehran in 2016 after Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran following the execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in the Saudi kingdom.
Riyadh has been opposed to Tehran’s activities in the region. In Yemen, Tehran supports Shia Houthi rebels. These rebels control Sanaa and are battling the government backed by Saudi Arabia. In Syria, Tehran backs President Bashar al-Assad against Sunni rebels. Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters, based in Lebanon, have been supporting the al-Assad government.
In a speech to the National Council on US-Arab Relations in Manama on December 6 last year, Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence head Prince Turki Faisal said, “Iranian disruptive regional behaviour in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia (attacking directly and indirectly its oil installations) is as much of a threat as is its nuclear programme.”
Riyadh wants Tehran to cut off its ties with all such militias in the region. In his virtual address to the United Nations General Assembly in September this year, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud remarked that Iran should cease all kinds of support for such groups.
Besides, Riyadh views with suspicion on Tehran’s growing military and diplomatic prowess in the region. Tehran has had a very advanced conventional and nuclear armament programme. Recently, Iran and China signed a 25-year agreement, which is said to involve the exchange of cheap Iranian oil in return for Chinese help in building telecommunications networks, hospitals, and underground railways.
Pertinently, Tehran has come very close to Beijing in the wake of the new pandemic. Iran preferred to downplay reports of the virus emerging from China. By March 17, 2020, Iran had over 14,991 confirmed cases of the coronavirus pandemic and had 853 deaths. The authorities came to know about the virus in January last year only. The first cases of deaths from the virus were reported in the Shia holy city of Qom on February 19. But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on March 3, 2020, said: “This disease is not serious, we have seen more disastrous calamities than this.”
The Iranian authorities chose not to cancel any flights from China to Iran. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-associated Mahan Air continued to transport religious students between China and Qom.
Recently, both China and Russia have agreed to process Iran’s application for the membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Riyadh thinks Tehran could use its military and diplomatic prowess to realise its ‘historical imperialistic ambition in the region.
Alarmed over Iran’s growing nuclear programme, Riyadh is believed to be working out some mechanism with Jerusalem to contain it. Needless to say, Jerusalem, too, seems determined to checkmate Iran’s nuclear weapon programme. Tehran’s declared policy has been to wipe the Jewish State off the world map. Jerusalem sees in a possible nuclear Iran a much greater threat to the existence of the Jewish State.
Reports are that senior some senior Saudi and Israeli officials, including Yossi Cohen, former Mossad head, Saud al-Qahtani, a former senior aide to Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, and Major General Ahmed al-Assiri, a close confidant to MBS and former deputy intelligence chief, have clandestinely met several times in the recent past.
Riyadh may even follow the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco to join the Abraham Accords and normalise its ties with Jerusalem. During his meeting with MBS in Riyadh in September, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan raised the issue of establishing diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The observers say that Riyadh and Jerusalem agree Washington must not return to its Iran nuclear deal (2015). They assess that, despite the 2015 deal, Tehran opened more advanced centrifuges and achieved the uranium enrichment level of 63 per cent, just a short step from the weapons-grade enrichment. If the 2015 deal returns, it would only advance the ongoing Iranian armament programme.
Significantly, Riyadh is also in touch with Washington to checkmate the emergence of a nuclear Iran. In their talk in Riyadh a couple of days back, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan and US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley are believed to have discussed the intensification of their joint efforts to address Iranian violations of international agreements and treaties.
(The writer is a Delhi-based journalist)