Iranian President Hassan Rowhani - or the “old friend,” as Al Arabiya’s General Manager Abdelrahman al-Rashed described him - is “well-known by the Saudis” as “he’s had an important role” in Tehran’s relations with Riyadh. Rashed also noted Rowhani’s role in sealing a security agreement with the late Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdelaziz.
The president - who was elected with massive popular support, and had the backing of his predecessors Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami - is focused on improving Iran’s foreign relations with two parties: the neighboring Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, and Western countries, particularly the United States.
Rowhani’s approach is based on “centrism.” He said he is working to “end reasons of tension and misunderstandings,” to establish relations based on trust and mutual respect. He is also calling on political parties in Iran “to neutralize foreign policy from partisan disputes.”
According to this pragmatic and realistic vision, the president seeks to achieve two goals: lifting economic sanctions on Iran, and reaching a settlement on regional issues, particularly his country’s nuclear program. Rowhani knows that without achieving these two goals, his legitimacy will be questioned by Iranians concerned over their living conditions, increasing inflation and unemployment.
He is aware of how foreign tensions negatively affect the domestic situation. During the presidential election campaign, Rowhani told Asharq al-Awsat that it was important to establish balanced relations with Saudi Arabia.
“I plan to turn the rivalry that has unfortunately increased in recent years into respect and cooperation,” he said. This is a rivalry he did not contribute to, but that came as a result of the policies of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Relations between Riyadh and Tehran were good during the era of Rafsanjani and the late Saudi King Fahd bin Abdelaziz. Back then, Rowhani, who was in charge of security, was one of the engineers of these relations. Ties remained good under Khatami, who visited the kingdom and was honored by King Fahd with the Order of Abdelaziz al-Saud.
This friendly path was cut short under Ahmedinejad. Bilateral disputes were linked to Iran’s nuclear program, its regional influence, the situation in Iraq and Lebanon, and the Syrian revolution. This affected Tehran’s relations with other Gulf states.
This legacy burdens Rowhani. For him to ease tensions, he needs Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s frank and clear support, as well as his authorization. Rowhani also needs a consensual domestic atmosphere that prevents the obstruction of reforms that he seeks to implement.
It is in Iran’s interest to engage in frank and serious dialogue with neighboring Arab countries, and reach practical solutions. This will contribute to decreasing political and sectarian polarization, and thus pave the way for a roadmap that ends the bloodbath in Syria, supports stability in Iraq and Lebanon, and brings about a positive atmosphere in the Gulf.
This cannot be achieved solely by statements and good intentions, and Tehran must have dialogue not just with the West, but with the Gulf states also. The latter are Iran’s neighbors, they have considerable regional influence, and they are respected in global decision-making circles, including in Washington, London and Paris. They are not simply oil exporters, as some politicians in Tehran think. The time for dialogue is now.
Hassan al-Mustafa is a Saudi journalist with an interest in Middle East and Gulf politics. His writing focuses on social media, Arab youth and Middle Eastern society.
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