ISIS Brings Saudi Arabia and Iran Closer

SHAFAQNA – The ISIS threat has brought Saudi Arabia and Iran closer together, and convinced the two rivals of the need to cooperate in order to face an “existential and strategic” menace to their countries, analysts and experts said. They also emphasized that Saudi-Iranian cooperation is crucial to confront the mounting threat posed by ISIS. The jihadist group has sent shockwaves across the entire world over the past few months following its significant military advances in Iraq and Syria, coupled with its brutal practices, namely the execution of its prisoners and the beheading of two American journalists.

A long-awaited rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran is a key tool to defuse sectarian tensions and long-simmering conflicts in the region, particularly in Syria and Iraq, analysts said.

“The ISIS threat has brought Iran and Saudi Arabia closer together and convinced them to engage in diplomacy in order to resolve lingering issues,” Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, told The Daily Star.

“I think Saudi-Iranian cooperation is very important in the battle to defeat ISIS. In order for them to successfully eliminate the ISIS threat, they need to agree on lingering regional issues, such as the situation in Yemen, Iraq and Syria,” he said.

“For Saudi Arabia, ISIS poses an existential threat, while ISIS poses a strategic threat for Iran in the region,” Khashan added. ” ISIS can have an appeal to a segment of the Saudi population, but it does not have such an appeal within the Iranian population.”

Sami Nader, a professor of economics and international relations at the Universite St. Joseph, echoed a similar view.

“A Saudi-Iranian rapprochement is fundamental to confront the Daesh threat in the region,” Nader told The Daily Star, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “For Saudi Arabia, ISIS poses an existential threat, while the militant group poses a strategic threat for Iran.”

“Both countries have shown a great deal of pragmatism in the attempt to cooperate to face the Daesh threat,” said Nader, also the director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs (LISA), a Beirut-based think-tank. “A Saudi-Iranian rapprochement is a master key to defuse conflicts in the region, namely in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain.”

Nader said that strained Saudi-Iranian ties were going through “détente” that could lead to the beginning of a rapprochement.

“For now, [the] détente is based on a single subject, which is a common threat posed by ISIS. Both countries are facing the Daesh threat. This is why the confrontation by their proxies in the region has calmed down,” he said.

Signs of a thaw in strained Saudi-Iranian relations emerged last month when Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian held an ice-breaking meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal in the Saudi city Jeddah.

Abdollahian described the talks, which also covered the ISIS threat, as “positive and constructive.”

“Both sides emphasized the need to open a new page of political relations between the two countries,” he said after meeting Prince Saud.

Abdollahian is expected to visit Beirut next week as part of a tour that will also take him to Syria to brief officials in both countries on the new climate of understanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran, a political source told The Daily Star.

Prince Saud has said he had invited his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif to visit Saudi Arabia and was awaiting a reply. He said Iran is a neighboring country which can contribute to stability in the region.

Zarif said he was ready to visit Saudi Arabia and welcome Prince Saud in Tehran. Speaking at a news conference in Tehran Aug. 31, Zarif, commenting on Abdollahian’s talks in Jeddah, said: ” Iran is always eager to establish good relations with neighboring states and Saudi Arabia is the most important of these states. It is an important country at the Islamic world level and enjoys a wide role and influence.” He said Iran and Saudi Arabia have “common interests and are facing common threats.

“Extremism, violence and terrorism are the most important dangers facing the Islamic world,” he added.

Since he was elected as Iran’s president last year, Hassan Rouhani has said he would make it a top priority to mend frayed relations with Saudi Arabia.

The imminent détente between Riyadh and Tehran comes as U.S. President Barack Obama, with his NATO allies, is struggling to establish an international coalition to confront the ISIS threat.

The United States said Friday that it was forming a “core coalition” to battle ISIS militants in Iraq. Obama sought to use a NATO summit in Wales to enlist allied support in fighting the Islamist militants, but it is unclear how many nations might join the United States in the battle.

A Saudi-Iranian rapprochement would have ramifications across the Middle East, potentially cooling political and military struggles in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen.

Saudi Arabia has long been suspicious of Iran’s influence in the region. Riyadh and other Gulf states have also been apprehensive of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Saudi-Iranian relations have been further strained by policy differences, particularly over the war in Syria, where the two countries support opposing sides. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors back rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad’s government, which is supported by Tehran.

In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iran also support opposing sides. While Saudi Arabia backs the Future Movement-led March 14 coalition, Iran supports the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance.

Speaker Nabih Berri and rival Lebanese politicians have said that improved Iranian-Saudi relations would result in breakthroughs in Lebanon and the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

Berri expressed hope that renewal of talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran would ward off terrorism threats facing the region. “I am counting on the Saudi-Iranian meeting to fight off the danger facing the region,” Berri was quoted as saying by lawmakers last week.

Shafik Masri, a professor of international law at the Lebanese University and the American University of Beirut, agreed that a Saudi-Iranian détente is pivotal to confronting the ISIS threat.

“A Saudi-Iranian rapprochement has not materialized yet. But there are intentions driven by an understanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran,” Masri told The Daily Star. “The Saudi-Iranian understanding is seeking to address the region’s problems, beginning with the ISIS threat.”

However, he said the fate of the Riyadh-Tehran understanding hinged on “the U.S. administration’s credibility in forming a regional and international coalition which was announced by President Obama to confront the ISIS threat.”

According to Masri, the popular upheavals that swept across the region, including the rise of ISIS, have brought Saudi Arabia and Iran to the conclusion that neither country can establish stability in the region alone.

“The two countries became convinced of the need to reach an understanding. ISIS constitutes a dual threat to both Saudi Arabia and Iran,” he said.

He added that among the results of the understanding was the political situation in Iraq, where Iran has ditched its ally, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and accepted a new prime minister.

Both Masri and Nader said an improvement in Saudi-Iranian ties would reflect positively on the situation in Lebanon by defusing sectarian tensions and clearing the way for the election of a president acceptable to both rival factions.

“The election of a new president in Lebanon signals that the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement is on the right track,” Nader said.

Khashan also said Saudi Arabia and Iran are working to contain sectarian tensions and prevent the situation in Lebanon from erupting into violence. “Saudi Arabia, Iran and the U.S. are working to prevent the crisis in Lebanon from exploding,” he said.


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