Secret ‘track 2’ negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Iran

Jamal Khashoggi
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Experts in the science of crisis resolution have noted that the open negotiations between two conflicting parties often fail when they take place in public, due to the pressures put on official negotiators by their political leaders or even by their supporters who are usually following up on the negotiations.

The supporters resort to reporters stationed where the negotiations are taking place or in their vicinity, in order to know what is going on behind the scenes of the discussions. The reporters rush to release leaked information anyway, regardless if it is true or false, and thus they negatively affect the negotiations adding more problems to the initial crisis, without mentioning the problems of the lurking oppositions, which in turn embarrass the negotiators.


‘Track 2’ negotiation

Therefore, they developed the idea of the “track 2” negotiation by organizing secret rounds of negotiations in a countryside resort or remote country, involving academics and activists, some of which are not aware that their leaders know about these negotiations. They believe that they are just undertaking a scientific research. When “track 2” negotiations reach an advanced formula able to achieve an acceptable understanding in order to reach a valid agreement, the participants’ involvement automatically rises and the negotiations become more serious. Then, both sides start to exchange legal documents defining the limits and restrictions of the negotiation, obliging both parties to abide to the reached agreements.

This is what happened between Palestinians and Israelis; when the late Haidar Abdel Shafi, Hanan Ashrawi – do you remember these names? – and other national Palestinian leaders were draining themselves in difficult negotiations with the Israeli occupiers in the early nineties in Madrid, there were secret negotiations taking place in the far north of Europe, in the Norwegian capital Oslo. The secret talks in Oslo were successful and led to an agreement, according to which, the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza are living today, whether you may see it as a negative or positive change, depending on your political point of view.

Saudi-Iranian stalemate

I liked the idea so I decided to volunteer and open the negotiations’ “track 2” between my country Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, after the emergence of what can be called an “impasse” in Saudi Arabian and Iran relations and its negative impact on the rest of the region.

This impasse can potentially lead to an escalation in Syria and elsewhere and exchanging accusations of violence and counter-violence. This case was clearly demonstrated after the P5+1 agreement in Geneva, which organized the step towards détente between the U.S. and Iran without establishing a similar détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran because the Iranian nuclear project, which was the subject of dispute and then agreement between Iran and the West, is not the main subject of disagreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Therefore, I seized the opportunity of participating in three research conferences during the past two weeks in Washington, the English countryside and then Vienna, to try establishing a “track 2” with Iranian researchers I met there. Indeed, I have met with three Iranians: the first a researcher living in Washington and the other two living in Tehran. The first is a counselor in one of the Iranian ministries while the second is a professor of political science.

Before anyone gets excited about this and describes what happened as formal and serious, I can assure you that it was neither official nor serious; the talks took place on the sidelines of the conference or during dinners. Nobody noted any remark but they all welcomed the idea of a “track 2” between Saudi Arabia and Iran and this is not surprising. The Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Zarif has been touring the Gulf capitals calling for a meeting that would lead to cooperation, love and brotherhood with the Kingdom! Mr. Zarif reminded me of what I said to the Iranian professor of political science at Vienna: “You want to eat the lamb while leaving it intact in the field; you want good relations with the Saudi kingdom without withdrawing from Syria for example or refrain from interfering in the region.”

At the beginning of our conversation on the “track 2,” the Iranians deliberately used sloganeering phrases, such as “What do you have to do with democracy in Syria? You are not even a democratic country.” I think that my answer was convincing as I said: “Yes this is true, but we did not call for the Syrian revolution, the Syrian people asked for a regime change, so we either have to accept that the people get slayed by you and the regime or we should help them. Even if we abandoned the Syrian people, they would not rest and they will carry on their revolution. The longer the conflict is the more you are getting involved.” One of them replied saying that not all the Syrians revolted against Assad, and that elections are the only solution. So the discussions led to the agreement on the need for a Saudi-Iranian cooperation in the Geneva 2 peace conference on Syria, and insisted that nobody can talk about cooperation in Geneva or elsewhere, nor about elections, as long as there are Syrian regime troops, assisted by Iranians, systematically shooting their own people.

In another round of the ‘track 2’ with the Iranian counselor, we reviewed the list of the Iranian interferences we are complaining about in the region, and I asked him afterwards: “Do you have a similar list about Saudi Arabia’s interference in Iran?,” so he replied saying that he is not informed about these security issues and he needs to ask about that in Tehran, then he went on to say: “The Kingdom did not openly accept the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia would eventually welcome any aggression from Israel or the United States against Iran.” I invalidated his idea while listing several agreements between Saudi Arabia and Iran, including the security agreements between the two countries, and the visits that took place in the past between the leaders of the two countries. Moreover, I told him that the kingdom has announced more than once that it is against any military action against Iran and that it will not participate in it.

We carried on our discussion at the end of the evening and ate together the famous Austrian “Schnitzel” with mashed potatoes. We have reached a slight agreement and gave up the dispute and sloganeering expressions that are suitable for television debates only. We agreed that peace would be beneficial for all. He explained how Iran is weakened by sanctions and that it wants to devote itself to economic development because one third of its youth is unemployed. The political science professor said that he expects Iran to lessen its interferences in foreign affairs over the next decade. So I asked him: “Why would we wait for a whole decade, which will cost us and cost Iran much?” He replied: “You have got to know Iran from the inside, there are many forces inside Iran and you must talk to everyone there.”

It was an encouraging start for the “track 2” between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but it still needs patience and we should know that it will be a very long journey between the two countries that have been neighbors for more than three thousand years, so why not try such negotiations regardless of the constant conflicts between the two countries?

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Dec. 12, 2013.

Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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