Saudi Arabia’s desire to negotiate with Iran

Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal made an important announcement yesterday

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

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Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal made an important announcement yesterday when he said that he invited his Iranian counterpart and that he is ready to negotiate with him. This announcement signaled a change in Saudi Arabia’s policy toward Iran and came during a visit to Riyadh by U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel who is scheduled to meet six Gulf ministers in the Saudi capital.

The foreign ministry insists that al-Faisal’s announcement was “merely” an answer to a question and that his invitation to his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif is not something new.

Reuters asked the prince if he plans to invite Iran’s foreign affairs minister or any other Iranian official to visit the kingdom in order to discuss the regional situation.

Faisal said: “There have been talks about the desire to revive communication between the two countries, which was expressed by Iranian officials - the Iranian president and his foreign minister. We sent an invitation to the foreign minister to visit the kingdom, but the intention to visit has not become real yet as he hasn't visited the kingdom so far. Any time that (Zarif) sees fit to come, we are willing to receive him. Iran is a neighbor, we have relations with them and we will negotiate with them, we will talk with them."

Unless Iranian behavior or the balance of power on the ground changes, negotiating with Iran could make things worse

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

The text is clear. It is friendly language and an open invitation. We’ve known Prince Saud al-Faisal as a precise diplomat even when it comes to the tiniest of details. We don’t know whether the statement is truly a mere answer to a question or a new Saudi policy.

My colleague Tarad al-Omari once wrote an interesting column in the Al-Hayat newspaper calling for Saudi-Iranian consensus. So, do we really need this understanding with Iran now? It’s not easy to judge international relations based solely on publicized statements. However, we don’t need to prove that Saudi-Iranian relations are bad as they are now the worst they have been in 30 years with both countries indirectly struggling in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Bahrain and Lebanon. I think Iran is not yet ready for any reconciliation. It’s also certain that any pledges it makes cannot be trusted. Part of the problem lies in not settling the domestic struggle in Iran itself. This is reflected in the contradictory statements made by Iran’s leaders. Another part of the problem, and one that is more dangerous, is the Iranian military command’s belief that they are winning on the ground amidst the U.S. absence, its regression of economic sanctions and its reliance on negotiating over the Iranian nuclear program.

Saudi Arabia will be the weaker party at any potential negotiation table. Negotiating itself will bolster the status of the hawks inside Iran and will send the wrong message to a number of Arab countries fighting Iranian proxies. What’s worse is that any relations with Iranian hawks will strengthen some American officials’ conviction regarding the importance of cooperating with Iran!

I think it is very unlikely that Riyadh will alter its policy just because prominent Iranian politician Hashemi Rafsanjani called for it - even though he is respected by Saudis - or because the Iranian command gave positive signals that it is willing to meet Saudi Arabia halfway. Unless Iranian behavior or the balance of power on the ground changes, negotiating with Iran could make things worse.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on May 14, 2014.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.

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