- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2007


The weekend summit between Saudi Arabia and Iran crowned weeks of frenzied diplomatic activity by the two regional powers, which seek to ease Sunni-Shi’ite tensions by minimizing the presence of the United States, participants and analysts say.

Saturday’s meeting in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, ended with both leaders promising to fight the spread of sectarian strife in the region.

Mr. Ahmadinejad also added a not-so-subtle barb at Washington: “Efforts were made to take common necessary steps for preventing the enemies from harming the Islamic world and making conspiracy moves,” Iranian state television quoted him as saying.

In recent months, Iranian officials have accused the United States of supporting a series of destabilizing guerrilla attacks on Iran’s periphery. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has accused Tehran of arming Shi’ite militias in Iraq to attack U.S. troops.

Saudi officials avoided any mention of the United States, portraying the summit as a regional peacemaking effort.

“Iran is an important country in the region, and is able to carry out a positive role. If the confrontation reaches its climax, it could hurt the region,” the state-run Saudi Press Agency quoted Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal as saying.

The summit was preceded by weeks of shuttle diplomacy, during which Ali Larijani, head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, made several trips to Riyadh, and Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan visited Tehran. Prince Bandar is the former Saudi ambassador to Washington.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan view Iran’s increasing geopolitical importance as a threat to their own stature.

In a January interview with the Kuwaiti newspaper as-Seyassah, King Abdullah warned Iran that it could endanger the entire region if it did not resolve the problems in its “international relations,” a reference to Iran’s escalating standoff with the United States over its nuclear program and its role in Iraq.

“We have advised them not to expose the region to dangers,” the Saudi king said. “We do not interfere in anyone’s affairs, [but] any state that resorts to unwise acts will have to bear responsibility before other countries in the region.”

Meir Javedanfar, an Iran-born Israeli analyst, said Saudi Arabia “is playing a vital role in bridging the Shia-Sunni conflict in the Middle East by portraying itself as the defender and representative of Sunnis in the region.”

“The Saudis are also elevating their strategic position in the West by acting as a much-needed communication channel between Tehran and Washington.”

The distrust between Iranians and Arabs goes back to the seventh-century battle of Karbala, when Hussein — the grandson of the prophet Muhammad — was killed by the army of the Umayyad dynasty of Muslim rulers.

More recently, Iranians remember the economic support that Arab countries of the Persian Gulf region gave Iraq after its 1980 invasion of Iran. As a result, mistrust between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Arabs runs deep.

“We have seen the Saudis, and know their behavior from the time of the war with Iraq,” a former Iranian diplomat said. “They paid billions of dollars to Iraq for weapons while talking to us of unity. They have their plan and it’s about following a Sunni line and creating a sectarian split.”

Distrust of the Arab world extends across Iranian society.

“Aren’t the Saudis the ones who believe that killing one Shi’ite will send a Sunni to paradise?” asked Mahmoud Karimi, a Tehran taxi driver.

“Isn’t that what they’re teaching their students in their Wahhabi madrassas? You won’t find a single Shi’ite who believes it’s good to kill a Sunni, because we all believe in one God.” The puritanical Wahhabi Muslim sect is the official religion of Saudi Arabia.

Such suspicions are reflected on the opposite shores of the Persian Gulf. Last month, a meeting of Sunni Muslim countries was held in Islamabad to discuss strategies to deal with Iran, among other issues.

“The Iranians must understand that when their country presents itself as a mediator in Lebanon’s political crisis, they make it so clear that sectarian affiliation is an important factor in their policy toward the Arab world,” said Saleh Alkhatlan, chairman of the political sciences department at Riyadh’s King Saud University.

Iran backs the Shi’ite Hezbollah militia and its political party, which is locked in a feud with the Saudi- and Western-backed government of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.

In Lebanon this week, leaders on both sides credited the Saudi-Iranian summit with providing the outlines of a compromise.

Nevertheless, Mr. Alkhatlan said: “The differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran will take more than a summit to resolve.”

“It is not about the Sunni-Shi’ite split but about Iran’s blatant intervention in Arab affairs, whether in Lebanon or in Iraq, and its hegemonic drive.

“The Saudis will never accept a nuclear Iran.”

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