Monday, April 30, 2007

A Disturbing Article Well Worth the Read

Commentary: The Saudi-Iran file
Afshin Molavi
April 27, 2007
-- As Arab presidents, emirs, and kings lined up alongside the United Nations secretary-general and the Pakistani, Malaysian, and Turkish heads of state in last month's Arab League summit in Riyadh, one key player was missing at the highest level: Iran. Its nominal head of state, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had not been invited. In his place, the relatively weak foreign minister, Manoucher Mottaki, attended on behalf of the Islamic Republic.

On the surface, this fits the caricature narrative that has emerged in policy and media circles on both sides of the Atlantic and across the Mediterranean: Saudi Arabia, the bulwark of Sunni Islam, is caught in a battle for regional hegemony -with sectarian overtones - against Iran, the bulwark of Shiite Islam.

This analysis, however, fails to capture the growing and diverse range of diplomatic contacts between Riyadh and Tehran in the last few months, the insistent and loud anti-sectarian statements made by top leaders on both sides, and the evolving Saudi-Iranian relationship over the past decade. It also fails to capture the strategic philosophy of the Islamic Republic and the personal thinking of King Abdullah Bin Abdel Aziz.

Though Saudi Arabia and Iran are natural competitors for influence in the Muslim world, both sides have been at pains to lower the rhetoric and avoid an escalation in tensions brought about by the Iraq and Lebanon wars, differences over Palestine and Afghanistan, and rising sectarian divisions in the region.

Ahmadinejad may not have attended the Arab League summit, but he visited Riyadh to meet with King Abdullah just a few weeks earlier in a meeting that was the culmination of a flurry of diplomatic activity between Riyadh and Tehran. Prince Bandar, Saudi Arabia's national security chief, has become a frequent visitor to Tehran, and his counterpart, Ali Larijani, a regular traveler to Riyadh. There have also been a series of unpublicized private visits, according to informed sources, that may have even included Javad Zarif, Iran's ambassador to the UN, who has flown from New York to Riyadh for talks, and the sons of former president Rafsanjani, who are passing on messages in Riyadh from their still-powerful father.

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