Iran General NewsSaudi-Iran meeting yields little substance

Saudi-Iran meeting yields little substance


New York Times: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia concluded an extraordinary meeting early Sunday promising a thaw in relations between the two regional powers. But they stopped short of agreeing on any concrete plans to tackle the escalating sectarian and political crises throughout the Middle East.
The New York Times

Published: March 5, 2007

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, March 4 — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia concluded an extraordinary meeting early Sunday promising a thaw in relations between the two regional powers. But they stopped short of agreeing on any concrete plans to tackle the escalating sectarian and political crises throughout the Middle East.

Mr. Ahmadinejad said that the two countries had agreed to try to curb tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims and that they had discussed in detail issues related to the Palestinians and Iraq.

The leaders are believed to have focused on finding ways to end the political standoff in Lebanon between Hezbollah, backed by Iran, and the government of Fouad Siniora, which is supported by the United States.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s first official visit to Saudi Arabia, which began Saturday, was marked by decidedly public shows of warmth and friendship between the leaders, as the men embraced, at times held hands in an Arab sign of close friendship, and smiled to cameras. The event marked the culmination of months of diplomatic efforts between senior Saudi and Iranian officials to ease the political standoff in Lebanon, cool sectarian violence in Iraq and possibly avert a looming Iranian confrontation with the United States.

Analysts were divided on Sunday over the ultimate impact of the summit meeting, held at the behest of the Iranian president.

To some, it promised to break the spiraling cycle of brinkmanship in the region, focusing both countries on constructive solutions to their differences.

Skeptics, however, said the absence of any tangible resolutions or initiatives, coupled with Mr. Ahmadinejad’s continuing aggressive speech, suggested that the meeting was more a public relations offensive meant to help Iran improve its image at home and in the Arab world as its confrontation with the United States appears to be escalating.

On Saturday, diplomats from Germany and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council discussed trying to impose tougher sanctions on Iran for its continued uranium enrichment efforts in defiance of the Security Council. The diplomats, speaking in a conference call, ended their discussion without an agreement.

But after Mr. Ahmadinejad landed in Tehran on Sunday, he repeated earlier warnings of a “conspiracy” to divide the Muslim world. This time, he included Saudi Arabia as one of his partners in resisting the plan.

“Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are aware of the enemies’ conspiracies,” Mr. Ahmadinejad told reporters. “We decided to take measures to confront such plots, and hopefully this will strengthen Muslim countries against oppressive pressures by the imperialist front.”

Saudi officials had no comment about that. But there was conflict over another issue. The Saudi Press Agency reported that Mr. Ahmadinejad had expressed support for a Saudi-led land-for-peace initiative that would have Arab states recognize Israel in return for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the lands occupied by Israel in 1967. Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo on Sunday agreed to revive the plan ahead of the Arab League summit meeting in Riyadh later this month.

An Iranian official, speaking to Iran’s state-run media, reportedly denied that the initiative was discussed during the summit meeting.

State Department officials on Sunday had no immediate comment on the meeting. But Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said Friday, before the talks, that “it’s going to be up to the Saudi leadership to decide how they interact with the Iranian president.”

Mr. McCormack said, “We would hope that they send a message to the Iranian president that across a wide spectrum the Iranian behavior in the region and around the world is just unacceptable, whether it’s their support for terrorism or their pursuit for weapons of mass destruction or their efforts to block any sort of progress in building a democracy in Lebanon or in the Palestinian areas. We would hope that the message to the Iranian leadership is that they need to change their behavior.”

A Saudi analyst with close ties to the government said, “In the end, they both know this is a geopolitical struggle,” adding, “They can offer big words about ending sectarian strife, but what can they really do about it? Ahmadinejad simply undertook this visit to make himself look cooperative with other Persian Gulf states.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad has come under increased pressure in recent weeks to tone down his comments. In Tehran on Saturday, Akbar Alami, a member of Parliament, said members intended to ask him to appear before them to answer questions about his policies. Mr. Alami said the lawmakers wanted to question his “provocative speeches, positions that are against diplomatic norms and against the country’s national interests,” the ISNA student news agency reported.

Sunni-Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran have vied for regional dominance, each carrying the banner of Islam and seeing itself as defending its majority sect. At the same time, the region’s calculus has changed significantly with the American invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Saudi Arabia in recent months has led an aggressive diplomatic effort to counterbalance Iran’s growing influence in the region, most recently serving as a host for the major Palestinian factions at a meeting in which they said they had agreed to form a unity government.

Saudi Arabia is also said to be working to bring Lebanese parties together to arrive at a peaceful settlement of the three-month crisis. An important part of the discussion on Saturday, some analysts said, was how to bring Syria back into the Arab fold after two years of isolation.

For much of the 1980s, Saudi Arabia and Iran had an adversarial relationship. Their relations thawed with the election of a reformist president in Iran, Mohammad Khatami, in 1997. But relations have cooled significantly since the election of Mr. Ahmadinejad in 2005.

The meeting on Saturday, though initiated by Iran, was an example of Saudi Arabia’s muscle-flexing in the region.

“Saudi Arabia did what people have been asking the U.S. to do for so long, which is to extend a hand out to the Iranians,” said Abdel Monem Said Aly, director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “The Saudis seized on the right time to give the Iranians a window of opportunity to get out of their mess.”

Mr. Aly said the test of a détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran is yet to come. “Will the Iranians be willing to give the Saudis what they didn’t give the Europeans, which is to stop their nuclear activity?” he said. “That will be a litmus test.”

Reporting was contributed by Nazila Fathi from Tehran; Nada Bakri from Beirut, Lebanon; Thom Shanker from Washington; and Rasheed Abou-Alsamh from Jidda, Saudi Arabia.

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