Upcoming Saudi-Iranian negotiations doomed to fail

Once the Syrian cause is brought up, negotiations will certainly fail and we'll be back to our cold war

Jamal Khashoggi

Published: Updated:

Maybe Iranian foreign affairs minister Mohamed Javad Zarif, who was recently invited by his Saudi counterpart to visit Riyadh for the first time, won't be the only Iranian official to arrive in Saudi Arabia. Maybe former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani will arrive himself in Jeddah to meet with the Saudi king and rekindle talks which broke the ice between Iran and the Saudi kingdom in the 90s. This would raise hopes on several levels, for the oil markets and for the political reality of the two rivals - Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Sunni world, and Iran, the leader of the Shiite world – restoring ties. However once the Syrian cause is brought up, negotiations will certainly fail and we'll be back to our cold war. This is what will happen unless Tehran alters its stance and becomes willing to cooperate with Riyadh and the world to build a new Syria without Bashar al-Assad.

I voiced this opinion during a meeting with researchers in Europe. There were Iranian politicians among the researchers. One of them is an advisor to the Iranian foreign ministry and another is a former advisor to Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani has restored some of his old influence in governing circles since his friend Hassan Rowhani became president. It's been said that it's Rafsanjani who's leading the attempts to re-launch dialogue between Tehran and Riyadh.

The foreign affairs advisor responded to my opinion and said that his country wants peace and wants to cooperate with the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, adding that the latter must also "change" and accept the fait accompli and the changes in the balance of powers in Syria.

His last statement summarizes the truth of the Saudi-Iranian dispute. Saudi Arabia considers Syria the arena of the major battle with Iran. It views Syria as the arena in which Iran dared to invade Saudi strategic depth. The fates of other arenas have been settled in advance, like Bahrain where Riyadh finalized the battle before it even began. There was also Yemen where Iran was bold enough to intervene and support the Houthis. This Iranian intervention further harmed the Yemenis seeking stability. However the case in Syria is different as Iran has completely controlled the regime there. The Syrian regime thus became a follower of Tehran and the latter is protecting it and fighting on its behalf. If the Syrian regime emerges victorious, Syria, "the beating heart of Arabism," as well as Iraq and Lebanon will end up captives of Iran and will become followers of Iran's regime and vilayat-e faqih.

Against Saudi Arabia’s strategic interests

Saudi Arabia will never accept such a catastrophic scenario that goes against history and its strategic interests. Saudi Arabia will also never accept what Iran considers a fait accompli in Syria as it doesn't think that Bashar al-Assad has won or that the battle has been finalized. Saudi Arabia cannot end or amend the path of the Syrian revolution because it didn't cause it. Saudi Arabia is just a friend standing on the right side of history in Syria. It's the history of the old Arab east which founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman al-Saud negotiated with the British to establish. Abdulaziz did not get everything he wanted. For example he did not get direct borders with Syria which has always been an extension of the Arab peninsula. This is because during the Hadda Agreement, the British insisted that there be borders between the then-Hashemite Iraq and Jordan. This deprived the Arab peninsula from having direct borders with its Syrian extension.

Once the Syrian cause is brought up, negotiations will certainly fail and we'll be back to our cold war

Jamal Khashoggi

This does not mean that Saudi Arabia is perhaps seeking to amend the Sykes-Picot borders. Keeping these borders, regardless of how bad they are, remains the best option for the region. However, the Sykes-Picot countries are who make a new Arab east. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and even Turkey certainly don't want Iran to have a foothold in this new Levant.

Turkey has begun to use some of its hard power in northern Syria and particularly at the coast which Iran has described as the end of its borders towards the west. Perhaps it's time for Saudi Arabia to also practice some of its hard power in the south to prevent Iran's scheme of controlling Syria's center to establish an Alawite state linked to it.

Meanwhile, and during these operations, "some sort of negotiation" with Iran, along with exchanging smiles and kisses, would be acceptable? The Iranians have positive ideas but they negotiate like the Israelis who in the last item (below) confiscate everything they gave up in the previous items. This is what I found in the ten-item paper which the Iranian researcher, who is friends with Rafsanjani, showed us. I have listed the articles and comment on them between brackets.

Agreements and disagreements

1. Maintain Syria's unity and safety of its lands. (Saudi Arabia will not disagree with them regarding this.)

2. Maintain Syria's state institutions including the army's and civil services'. (These are details that Saudi Arabia prefers to leave for the Syrians as they are the ones who suffered from this army and fought with it.)

3. Involve all important Syrian parties in the political process.

4. Search for mutual compromises.

5. Accept the majority's right to govern while protecting the minorities' rights. (This article seems like an Iranian concession and a confession of the mistake of the Alawite minority dominance over the majority of the Syrian people. However there's an Iraqi benefit here. Such an article would grant the Shiite majority in Iraq a permanent sacred right to govern considering that the region's countries have recognized the right of the Sunni majority to govern in Syria. This is a sectarian mentality, and it's the last thing we need. It's actually best for everyone to abandon sectarian legislation and just commit to the principles of democracy and elections.)

6. Rejecting that Syria be a safe haven for terrorism, ending the funding and arming of terrorists and fighting al-Qaeda and extremists regionally and internationally. (There can be plenty of cooperation in this regard but this requires honesty, transparency and exchange of information and not taking stances. Al-Qaeda which arrived to Syria uninvited to fight is a terrorist group. And the same goes for Hezbollah and Abu al-Fadel al-Abbas brigades. They are terrorist groups even though they were invited by the Syrian regime to fight and although they were encouraged by Tehran.)

7. Strengthen moderation. (No one will disagree regarding this point.)

8. For Assad to have a role in the measures of establishing trust along with ending the denial that atrocities happened. (This is where Iranian games begin. Assad is the problem and not a party that can reconcile with the rest of the Syrian people. Iran must admit that what's happening in Syria is not a struggle between eastern Syria and western Syria and is not a struggle between the Sunnis and the Alawites. It's the revolution of people who want to change the regime. The regime's head is Bashar al-Assad. His supporters, party and sect don't grant him legitimacy. Even the Shah had supporters, yet he was toppled.)

9. For Assad to have a role in the transitional phase. (More Iranian games that destroy all the good concessions previously made. This article contradicts with the U.N. Security Council's decision calling for the Geneva II negotiations. More importantly, the Syrian people will totally reject this article. The struggle will thus continue though the aim of the supposed Saudi-Iranian negotiations is to provide applicable solutions to end the struggle.)

10. Provide legal immunity for Assad and prominent Alawite officials while maintaining their right to establish a new political party. (This is where the failure of negotiations will be publicly announced.)

There are other semi-official Iranian ideas. But just like the previous ones, they begin with a good idea, like the call to halt fire, and then they are followed with a bad one like "hold free and fair elections in which Bashar al-Assad participates."

This is the Iranian logic which made me say is a reminder of the Israeli negotiating style. Israelis talk about peace and cooperation but keep the land and its resources and then demand the Palestinians to accept this. I affirm that upcoming Saudi-Iranian dialogue will fail because the Iranians will not give up Bashar and his regime, nor will the Saudis abandon the Syrians and their desire to attain freedom. These differences are worlds apart.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on May 17, 2014.


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.