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    Middle East
     Mar 8, 2007
Page 1 of 2
Iran moving in from the cold
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's one-day trip to Saudi Arabia last weekend was a landmark event that set a new tone for the hitherto elusive "Islamist solution" to the multiple crises devastating the Middle East and even the broader Muslim world.

The two countries have joined hands in their common struggle to end the growing Sunni-Shi'ite strife posing the "greatest danger facing the region", to paraphrase the Saudi official news agency. The so-called "twin pillars" of regional stability have now put a premium on the strategic considerations of Israel and its policy

supporters in Washington. The latter's aim is to align "moderate Sunnis" led by the Saudi kingdom against perceived radical Shi'ites led by Iran. Clearly, the regional powers operate by their own national-security calculus and not those drawn in Washington or Jerusalem.

On his return to Tehran from what is obviously a major foreign-policy plus bound to quiet some of his internal critics, Ahmadinejad stated that he had discussed the regional crises with King Abdullah and offered "assisting the kingdom's efforts to calm the situation in Lebanon and end its political crisis".

Saudi Arabia may have received Iran's backing over Lebanon in exchange for stepping back from any major initiative on Israel. This is in light of Ahmadinejad's explicit misgivings while in Riyadh about an earlier "Islamist" meeting in Pakistan centered on the Palestinian crisis. Apart from the host, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia were invited to Islamabad. Iran was not.

Iran has denied reports in Arab papers that Ahmadinejad "voiced support for the Arab peace initiative endorsed at an Arab summit in 2002". This calls for the simultaneous recognition of Israel and an independent Palestinian state. Similarly, Iran has been pressuring Pakistan, and to a lesser extent Indonesia, to retreat from taking any initiative on the Arab-Israeli front without the participation of key regional players.

"We have a lot of questions about the Islamabad meeting," Ahmadinejad bluntly said in Saudi Arabia, referring to the gathering of the seven Muslim states to discuss "the Palestinian crisis, the situation in Iraq and US-Iran tensions", per a report from Pakistan. It quoted a senior Pakistani official explaining that Iran was not invited because it "has its own position on the Israeli-Palestinian row".

From Iran's point, the curious timing of this initiative deserves scrutiny. Tehran is seriously disquieted by Washington-Jerusalem talk of an Arab-Israeli strategic cooperation against Iran. In the words of Javad Vaeedi, the deputy director of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, "The Sunni Arabs [Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia] feel a common threat, and in order to neutralize the Iran threat, seek a common interest with Israel. One way to pursue this is to establish peace between the Palestinians and Israel ... Progress on the Palestine front can establish future cooperation with Israel for a potential alliance against Iran."

Vaeedi's boss, Ali Larijani, who is also the country's chief nuclear negotiator, has stated that while Iran cooperates with Saudi Arabia on the Palestinian issue, it prefers to work behind the scenes compared with the Saudis' more open approach.

The Saudis are, however, far ahead of Iran in conflict management, and Tehran can and should be Riyadh's junior partner in this endeavor. This depends to some extent on Riyadh's willingness to pay close attention to Iran's own national-security worries.

A proposed Mecca summit of the leaders of the same seven Muslim nations who met in Islamabad is now under a cloud after the Ahmadinejad-Abdullah meeting, which was seen by Tehran as a "circuit breaker".

What is certain, however, is a closing of the cognitive gap with respect to Iraq, given Ahmadinejad's and King Abdullah's joint statement calling for "Iraq's independence, national unity and equality between its citizens". In turn, this raises the issue of the security meeting in Baghdad involving, among others, the US, Syria and Iran.

Agenda-setting for Baghdad
Iran's officials have ruled out the possibility of direct talks with the US at the meeting scheduled for Saturday. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki has hinted that he will not participate and a "deputy foreign minister" will attend. The US, on the other hand, has left open the possibility of direct dialogue with Iran and Syria, while insisting that the meeting will be exclusively about Iraq.

Iran's main position with respect to the Baghdad meeting revolves around three issues: reiterating support for the Iraqi government, demonstrating its commitment to Iraq's stability by offering 

Continued 1 2 

US ally Musharraf in a tangle over Iran (Mar 7, '07)

How the Saudis stole a march on the US (Mar 6, '07)

Snatching war out of the jaws of peace (Mar 6, '07)

Saudi-Iran tension fuels wider conflict (Dec 6, '06)


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