By Nashashibi, Sharif
The Middle East , No. 448
IT IS OFTEN SAID THAT THE MIDDLE EAST WILL NEVER see lasting peace without resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. The same is true of improving relations between Iran and the Arab world, particularly Saudi Arabia. The animosity between these two powerhouses, which is "almost impossible to overstate," has "fueled a decade of violence across the region," wrote Reuters correspondents Angus McDowall and Yeganeh Torbati. "The sectarian edge to their struggle has sharpened in recent years. Both countries define themselves according to Islam and clerics in both regard the other with open disdain."
Saudi Arabia and Iran "pushing the sectarian line" is "poisoning the politics of the entire region," wrote F. Gregory Gause III, non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.
The recent election of reformist Hassan Rouhani as Iranian president has raised hopes that a rapprochement may be on the horizon, after bilateral relations deteriorated markedly during the eight-year tenure of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The deputy manager for Rouhani's electoral campaign said mending ties with Riyadh was the new president's "top priority."
Both countries "have vested interests in talking to each other," wrote McDowell and Torbati. "Saudi Arabia wants Iran to end what it sees as meddling in Arab countries supporting Shi'ites or their allies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia itself. Tehran wants Riyadh to stop urging military action against its atomic sites and helping western sanctions by increasing oil supplies to make up for embargoed Iranian crude."
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia congratulated Rouhani on his election victory, and received a letter of thanks in return. Both have since described each other's countries as "brothers." Rouhani reiterated this in late September, adding that he viewed Riyadh as a "friend," and wanted "to remove trivial tensions ... in order to fulfil bilateral and the Islamic world's interests."
King Abdullah welcomed the president's expressed desire for "mutual respect and mutually beneficial arrangements and cooperation." Iranian First Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri issued a congratulatory message to mark Saudi National Day on 23 September and "called for the promotion of relations ... on various fronts," Iran's Press TV reported.
So far so good, but diplomatic pleasantries are the easy bit. Those expecting a real breakthrough are likely to be disappointed. It is Supreme Leader All Khamenei, Iran's highest authority, who calls the shots regarding foreign policy, not the country's presidents. Rouhani has been open about this, saying: "Decisions on major foreign policy issues constitutionally require the support of the supreme leader."
Khamenei, who was not popularly elected, has been in his post since 1989. As such, even though Rouhani may have a different image and style than his hard-line predecessor, the substance of Saudi-Iranian relations, and the major regional issues that have strained them, will likely remain unchanged, whether the new president likes it or not.
"When the region is in crisis," bilateral tensions "have risen," wrote Kayhan Barzegar, director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran, and a former research fellow at Harvard University.
"Conversely, during times of relative regional peace, their relations have strengthened, for example, during the late 1990s," added Barzegar, who chairs the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Islamic Azad University in Tehran. This does not bode well for bilateral ties, given that the Middle East is now much more volatile, and hence Saudi-Iranian relations more tense, than when Ahmadinejad took office.
Furthermore, and unsurprisingly--given the aforementioned political power structure in Iran--Rouhani's statements on a range of strategic regional issues reflect continuity in Tehran's policies. …