| Ander Nieuws week 12 / nieuwe oorlog 2007 |
Those who think a wedge can easily be driven between Iran and Saudi Arabia should not underestimate their history of pragmatic alliance.
March 6, 2007
By Dilip Hiro
The Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's eight-hour trip to Riyadh on Saturday to meet King Abdullah marked an important milestone in the relations between their countries, which in the past have oscillated between competition and cooperation.
After their talks, centred round Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinians, the two leaders displayed mutual warmth as they embraced and smiled to cameras.
This enabled Ahmadinejad to declare on his return to Tehran that "Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are aware of the enemies' conspiracies. We decided to take measures to confront such plots. Hopefully, this will strengthen Muslim countries against oppressive pressure by the imperialist front."
Allowing for the customary bluster with which Ahmadinejad expresses himself, it seems that he and the Saudi king resolved to counter the efforts being made to accentuate Sunni-Shia relations in Iraq and Lebanon for the good of the region in particular and the Muslim world at large.
Specifically, they examined ways of ending the political stalemate in Lebanon between the Washington-backed government of Fouad Siniora, and the Tehran-backed Hizbullah. They also discussed ways of de-escalating the Sunni-Shia violence in Iraq - an aim which they, incidentally, share with the United States.
These deliberations run counter to the scenario that many pro-Bush administration commentators in America had visualised - with the Shia Iran and the Sunni Saudi Arabia intensifying their rivalry to the point of funding and training sectarian militias in Iraq to engage in a debilitating civil war.
Such analysis ignores certain salient facts about the nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as well as recent history.
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are fundamentalist states. That is, they are administered according to the Sharia, Islamic law. The difference is that Iran has a representative system, with its citizens choosing their representatives through periodic elections, whereas Saudi Arabia is a monarchical autocracy, which does not allow citizens' participation in the administration of the state.
During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Riyadh sided with Iraq, which was then ruled by the secular Ba'ath party. Yet when oil prices collapsed in the spring and summer of 1986 to $10 a barrel, hurting the economies of both the Saudi kingdom and Iran, Saudi King Fahd met the Iranian oil minister in October. They backed the idea of a fixed price of $18 a barrel. Being the leading exporters of oil in the Organisation of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC), their joint decision carried weight.
And when Saudi oil minister Ahmad Zaki Yamani, who had held the job for 24 years, failed to endorse this target, King Fahd dismissed him.
In other words, economic interests led to a convergence of the policies of the two leading Islamic states in the Gulf.
Following the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in June 1989, the radical founder of the Islamic republic, overall relations thawed between Tehran and Riyadh. This trend was aided by the subsequent election of Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a pragmatic cleric, as president.
Rafsanjani had a cordial meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah in March 1997, and was invited to undertake the hajj pilgrimage in Mecca the following month.
This paved the way for Iran to host the triennial summit of the Islamic Conference Organisation (ICO), headquartered in Jeddah, in December. By then Muhammad Khatami, a moderate cleric, had succeeded Rafsanjani.
The hosting of the ICO summit by Iran, which is 90% Shia, was remarkable. Of the 49 members of the ICO, only four were Shia-majority states.
Breaking with protocol, Khatami had two private meetings with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.
It was after an ICO summit in Mecca last year that President Ahmadinejad reasserted (in the presence of King Abdullah) that the extent of the Holocaust had been exaggerated.
Overall, though, in their foreign policies, Iran and Saudi Arabia stand at opposite poles. While Tehran has backed radical movements in the Muslim world irrespective of their sectarian allegiance (Hamas, for instance, is a Sunni organisation), Riyadh has supported orthodox, conservative and fundamentalist forces among Sunni Muslims. It was one of the three countries which recognised the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Yet when their leaders find that their traditional rivalry is undercutting the economic or diplomatic interests of their countries, they adopt a pragmatic stance and close ranks in the name of Islamic solidarity. That is what happened in Riyadh at the weekend.
| Ander Nieuws week 12 / nieuwe oorlog 2007 |