Asia Watch

Saudi-Iranian détente?

It wasn’t so long ago that the whole world watched as Donald Trump sashayed on to the Riyadh red carpet and stole the show with his tough talk on Iranian-sponsored terrorism.

Aug 18, 2017
It wasn’t so long ago that the whole world watched as Donald Trump sashayed on to the Riyadh red carpet and stole the show with his tough talk on Iranian-sponsored terrorism. The entire shebang was deemed a success by those in the know. The unquiet American even managed to touch up the Saudis for a mega arms deal. All for the good cause of the Islamic Military Alliance.
Yet much has happened in the Middle East since then. Iran has re-elected President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, for a second term. Trump, huffing and puffing and pouting at the negotiated nuclear deal promptly blew it off the table before imposing unilateral sanctions on Tehran.
Yet the biggest news to come out of the hood is the rumour of a possible détente between the Saudis and the Iranians. Trump has thus far not said a word about it. But when he does — the world will be listening to see if he apportions the blame equally between both sides.
No one is saying too much from the Saudi side. There has been talk of some not-so-cryptic tweets by someone close to the ruling royal family mentioning one ‘useless’ neighbour that isn’t either Iran or Iraq. Political pundits have described the move as putting out virtual feelers to gauge public reaction to any overtures aimed at rapprochement.
Aside from the blatant dig at Qatar — it is true that both Iran and Iraq are useful regional partners for the Saudis. Between the three of them, they control the bulk of the world’s oil. Indeed, the latter has re-opened the Iraqi border after some 27 long years. And while this may not automatically mean that Baghdad is the mediator between Riyadh and Tehran as some media outlets have reported and which Saudi Arabia has vehemently denied — the move itself is welcome. The challenge of course remains preventing the free movement of ISIS fighters fleeing US bombs raining down on Iraq to or from excursions into Syria. And then there were this week’s leaked emails confirming that the House of Saud may not be averse to cosying up to Iran. One very real stumbling block, however, could be Israel. Qatar’s recognition of Hamas — and not its hosting of the Afghan Taliban or even its ties with Tehran — is widely believed to have prompted its regional isolation. Yet for its part, Iran has allowed its citizens to participate in the annual Hajj pilgrimage for the first time in two years.
What does this mean for President Trump? Quite possibly a lot. It may or may not suggest that the Saudis treat the bilateral US relationship in terms of transaction benefits — much in the same way as Washington views it. Nevertheless, this does raise questions over the viability of the Saudi-led Islamic Alliance as seen through US eyes, given that this was seen primarily as an anti-Shia war machine designed primarily to target Iran. Yet if there does happen to be a warming of the Saudi-Iranian bilateral relationship — it may prove a righteous slap in the face to all those who would have the world believe that the Sunni-Shia divide is not a political one. 
Daily Times, August 18, 2017

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