Saudis betting on the wrong horse

January 29, 2021 - 23:52

TEHRAN – In the early weeks of his appointment as Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif requested a meeting with General Qassem Soleimani, the former commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, to discuss how to patch up relations with Saudi Arabia.

During the meeting, Zarif proposed to offer a regional initiative to discuss with Saudi authorities issues related to Bahrain, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, places where Iran had been locked in a bitter dispute with Saudi Arabia. But General Soleimani proposed the Yemen file, which was yet to be in the limelight at that time.
Zarif agreed to start off with that file. So he sent a message to former Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal through a person who was able to act as a secret backchannel to top Saudi officials.
The Saudi response was disappointing. Al-Faisal gave a very short answer to what appeared to be a long message of Iran. “The Arab world is none of your business,” al-Faisal retorted.
This correspondence took place during the former leadership of Saudi Arabia, which was less hostile toward Iran than the current one.
Over the past seven years, Zarif has continued to extend his hand to Saudi Arabia with no success. The Saudis and their allies did not respond to Iran’s initiatives, including the recently introduced Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE). And when Donald Trump assumed office in 2016 the Saudi unwillingness to engage in a dialogue with Iran was even intensified.
Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, the Saudis brushed away all mediation efforts undertaken by a number of countries such as Pakistan and Iraq. They preferred to wait and see how the so-called “maximum pressure campaign” of the Trump administration would end with Iran.
To their chagrin, Trump lost the November election. Although Joe Biden is no friend of Iran, the Saudis and their allies have been worried about a possible thaw in Iran-U.S. relations. To dispel these concerns, Zarif and Iran’s foreign policy apparatus in general once again intensified their efforts to bridge the gap between Tehran and Riyadh. The Iranian foreign minister published at least eight tweets in Arabic – mostly to urge Iran’s Arab neighbors to resolve their differences with Tehran through dialogue – since Donald Trump lost the U.S. presidential election in November.
The main theme of these tweets was that Iran will not negotiate with the West over the region and the countries of the Persian Gulf region should patch up differences through dialogue without the presence of foreigners.
“Our dear neighbors, the opportunity is available to us to re-reflect on the issue of regional security. As we know, such security cannot be bought with money and cannot be achieved by accumulating weapons. The only way to establish security and stability is through broad regional cooperation among the countries of the region, and Iran has always emphasized its readiness to activate such cooperation,” Zarif said in the latest Arabic tweet on Thursday.

Earlier on January 19, Zarif had welcomed an offer by Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani to hold a summit between the leaders of Iran and the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council.
But all Zarif’s efforts were left unanswered by Saudi Arabia and its allies. To be sure, the Saudis together with the Emiratis have heard Iran’s calls for dialogue. But they refused to respond positively.
“Tehran is trying to open the door to [Persian] Gulf dialogue,” reported the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. But the newspaper said Saudi Arabia rejected Iran’s efforts because it believes that Iran supports what it called “terrorist groups.”
“The Saudi answers were clear. Because Iran and its support for terrorist groups in the region constitute a threat to the [Persian] Gulf,” the newspaper continued.
Whether the Saudis and their Emirati allies would continue to reject Iran’s reconciliatory efforts remains an open question. But they seem to be once again adopting a wait-and-see approach to see how the new U.S. president would deal with Iran. They have called on Biden to include them in any future talks with Iran, something, that if done, they think would prevent Washington from repeating what they call “Obama-era mistakes” in terms of dealing with Iran.
The Saudi-UAE opposition to Iran’s goodwill gestures seems to be based on an assessment that the new U.S. administration will not go soft on Iran even if Biden himself doesn’t want to play hardball with it.
“We largely rule out the issue of repeating the scenario of former President Barack Obama's administration in the region,” wrote Mohammad Khalfan al-Sawafi, an Emirati analyst, in an opinion piece for the London-based Al-Arab newspaper.
Pointing to the recent remarks by U.S. Secretary Antony Blinken on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, al-Sawafi said these remarks show that the Biden administration wants to say that there are some mistakes that were made when the U.S. trusted Iran, a clear reference to the signature Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran.
“To a large degree and with some clarity, this talk means that the new U.S. administration will not be tolerant of Iran's leaders,” al-Sawafi said of Blinken’s remarks.
The Emirati analyst thus concluded that this U.S. approach paves the way for the Biden administration to stay the course.
“Merely thinking about cooperation with Iran means, according to the previous logic [of the Obama], a new adventure in increasing the number and size of political and security crises in the world,” al-Sawafi noted.


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