Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal chose the First Arab Cooperation and Economic Forum with Central Asia and Azerbaijan, strategically important countries to Iran, as the venue to invite the Iranian foreign minister to visit Saudi Arabia and to declare Riyadh’s willingness to negotiate with Iran to resolve their regional differences.
The continuation of the conflict in Syria, the deterioration of the security situation in Iraq and the likely victory of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the recent Iraqi elections could all push the Sunni-Shiite struggle past the point of no return and threaten everyone’s security and stability, including Iran and Saudi Arabia. Thus, the rational choice for all parties is to control the conflict and stop the slide toward further escalation.
This de-escalatory framework explains why Faisal invited Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to visit the kingdom and why Faisal declared that Riyadh is willing to hold talks with Tehran on the region’s heated issues. It is an invitation to control the conflict, not resolve it, because there are no signs of a Saudi-Iranian agreement on Syria, Iraq, Bahrain or Yemen. The two still have significant disagreements, especially on Syria.
A former Saudi official told Al-Monitor that a behind-the-scenes, low-level direct dialogue has started between Saudi Arabia and Iran regarding Syria. The source added that progress at this level could pave the way for a public dialogue between them on Syria. But that prospect remains a long shot as the differences between the two Islamic powers over Syria run deep. Saudi Arabia is not budging on its demand for President Bashar al-Assad’s departure, while Iran considers Assad remaining in power a guarantee of its influence.
This de-escalatory framework also explains the successive statements by Iranian officials about their desire for dialogue and cooperation with Saudi Arabia to achieve security in the region. Such statements were made by President Hassan Rouhani, Zarif and most recently by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani when he met Pakistani Prime Minister Mohammad Nawaz Sharif in Tehran on May 11.
Sharif's recent visit to Iran was key in the Saudi invitation. Pakistan is also concerned about the escalating sectarian conflict, which will increase Islamabad’s security problems in light of the government’s attempt to end the ongoing war with the Taliban in Pakistan and by virtue of Pakistan’s special relations with Saudi Arabia. Pakistan doesn’t want to see the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia escalate to a stage in which Pakistan becomes a party, with all the security costs this would entail.
Also, a strained Pakistan-Iran relationship would strengthen India’s relations with Iran, potentially encircling India, Iran and Afghanistan, whose new government is expected to cooperate with India and Iran at Pakistan’s expense.
Pakistan is pushing to ease tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, mainly because Islamabad is worried about its national security, which is racked by sectarian conflicts, and also because it needs to have economic relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The US administration also wants to see a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement that reduces the level of conflict in the region and turns it into a competition between the regional powers, aided by a balance of power between Iran and Saudi Arabia. US President Barack Obama spoke to The New Yorker magazine about establishing a new balance in the Middle East that would maintain the conflict and the competition in the region and said that he was working with all parties to prevent the rise of extremists.
A media report from Tehran, citing circles close to Rafsanjani, spoke of a preliminary plan developed by Rafsanjani’s team after he got the green light from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to reach a settlement with Saudi Arabia. The preliminary plan calls for stopping the media escalation on both sides, activating the security agreement signed between the two countries during the era of former President Mohammad Khatami and starting confidence-building measures through the Lebanese file, as that issue is the least heated.
In his remarks on May 13, the Saudi foreign minister invited Iran’s foreign minister to visit Riyadh and spoke of the need for cooperation among all countries in the fight against terrorism. This gesture indicates that the terrorism file, like the Lebanese one, may be a starting point to address the crisis of confidence between the parties.
The results of a dialogue between the two regional powers may start to appear in Lebanon with Riyadh and Tehran working to resolve the presidential crisis. Lebanon has not been a major point of contention between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as Lebanon’s consensus-based political system mostly preserves the influence of both countries there. The other major points of contention between the two countries — Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen — remain dependent on what happens in Syria, as it is difficult to reach a definitive solution in those three countries without first arriving at a deal on Syria.
Seemingly irreconcilable differences on Syria — and the necessity for a deal on Syria to resolve other regional disputes — show that a comprehensive solution on the region is still out of reach, but controlling the escalation of the conflict is possible. Pakistan and the United States are playing an important role in pushing Saudi Arabia and Iran to de-escalate tensions and contain the regional flames.