It takes courage to make a decision on Iran - Saudi relations
“The wall of mistrust between Riyadh and Tehran must be broken down by mutual understanding. ” said new Iranian ambassador to Saudi Arabia with regard to improving the Iran - Saudi relations. Hossein Sadeghi, an experienced diplomat in Saudi Arabia believes that cracking the walls is the only option for resuming talks.
"The wall of mistrust between Riyadh and Tehran must be broken down by mutual understanding." said new Iranian ambassador to Saudi Arabia with regard to improving the Iran-Saudi relations. Hossein Sadeghi, an experienced diplomat in Saudi Arabia believes that cracking the walls is the only option for resuming talks. He added: "At this time there is no obstacle in the way of resuming talks and establishment of relations between the two countries. There is no need for a mediatory role and the only key to resolving disputes would be direct and genuine dialogues."
According to Saudi Foreign Minister they intend to improve ties with Iran and inviting Iran's Zarif to the summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) implies the possibility of a thaw between the two countries. Do such invitations show the Saudis' determination? What is Iran's stand on establishment of new relations with Saudi Arabia?
Let me first give a quick overview of the Iran - Saudi relations after the Islamic Revolution and then talk about Iran's 11th administration's stand on Saudi Arabia and the future prospects of the relations. Since the Islamic Revolution there have been five stages of relations with Saudi Arabia. First, victory of the Islamic Revolution and acceptance of the Resolution 598.These two stages were followed by the Rafsanjani's presidency and then the reform era in Iran. After that the 9th and 10th government of Iran and currently the 5th stage which is the era of new administration in Iran. As an experienced diplomat I believe that the "Government of Prudence and Moderation" is able to improve ties with KSA. Moderation is also exactly what King Abdullah has in his mind. In my assumption our relations with neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia will gradually improve albeit there are obstacles which must be overcome and Hassan Rouhani's government is an opportunity for both countries to step in for going back to golden days of Mr. Rafsanjani and Mr. Khatami in our relations.
Will turning down the invitation by Mr. Zarif and not attending the summit lead to misunderstanding?
Resolving the disputes over Iran's nuclear program and improving ties with our neighbors are the main priorities of Iran's foreign policy. As you know President Rouhani in his first news conference pointed to the need for reconciliation with neighbors and mainly Saudi Arabia. It was actually impossible for Mr. Zarif to attend the Jeddah summit. The proposed dates of the visit to Saudi clash with planned nuclear talks with 5+1 and that is the only reason behind rejecting the invitation. Hopefully, there will be a visit soon. On the other hand, Iran's high-rank officials will attend the Jeddah summit and this proves Iran's determination to improve ties.
Has there been another invitation?
No. That was the only invitation.
But Saudis have mentioned another invitation…
Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal has always said that they are willing to visit Mr. Zarif at anytime but the invitation was for the Jeddah summit.
Saudi intelligence chief Bandar Bin Sultan's replacement has fueled speculation about shifts in Saudi Arabia towards Iran. There were long-running disputes between Iran and Saudi Arabia over his role in supporting Takfiris in Syria. What is your overall assessment of his role in relations of the two countries?
In my assumption, these issues are not related in the way that you mentioned in your question. It would not be a comprehensive assessment of Riyadh's system of governance. Individuals do not shape the policies in Saudi Arabia despite their influence. His replacement is not a reason for shifts in Saudi's foreign policy towards Iran. I personally think that Bandar Bin Sultan was determined to enhance ties with Iran. As I said, Saudi's new approach is not about individuals in the authority. Iran and Saudi Arabia have reached a consensus over improving bilateral relations due to crisis in Middle East and the rise of terrorism, extremism and sectarianism in the region. Hopefully, necessary measures will be taken in near future by the countries in Persian Gulf region.
You rejected the role of Bandar Bin Sultan while some believe that Saud al-Faisal is another source of tension between the countries…
As I said these assessments are not based on facts. During Rafsanjani and Khatami's tenure we had great relations with Saudi and both Saud al-Faisal and Bandar Bin Sultan had important roles in the government. In our golden days we had comprehensive political, economic, cultural and military cooperation with Saudi Arabia. It is undeniable that the Saudi Foreign Minister is personally determined to improve the relations with Iran, otherwise he would have never invited Mr. Zarif to Jeddah.
Isn't that all about playing the ball in Iran's ground?
No not at all.
So you believe that 9th and 10th government of Iran's policies are the source of frosty relations between the two countries during Ahmadinejad's tenure?
That is correct. When there is a particular approach in one's foreign policy you cannot expect other countries to have a different constructive approach. I do not want to judge those policies but they totally destroyed our relations with some countries and it is hard to rebuild the trust. It needs genuine efforts by both sides such as confronting terrorism, radicalism and sectarianism in the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia have a great potential for establishing stability and peace in the Middle East and are able to take serious measures in order to achieve their goals.
What are the potentials and capabilities? There are disputes over Takfiri groups and crises in the region between Iran and Saudi Arabia. There were Saudi backed terrorist attacks in Syria and now in Iraq by ISIS. How can we reach a consensus?
There are lots of issues and concerns which must be addressed by the two countries. There are elements of ambiguity in the relations. We need to sit at negotiation table and tackle all the issues. Obstacles can be overcome by tough and challenging direct talks between the countries. Disagreements are pretty normal. It takes courage to make a big decision to reconcile with Saudis. Commonalities outweigh disagreements and that is the point to begin.
Do you see the courage in Iran and Saudi Arabia?
In my assumption, both are ready for a historic decision in a historic period of time and that is reconciliation. Crises have entangled the region, it is a critical juncture and the only solution is the establishment of stable relations between the Kingdom and Islamic Republic of Iran's government.
What are the priorities?
First of all rebuilding the trust, the wall of mistrust must be broken down by mutual understanding. After that, there would be no obstacles in the way of reconciliation. There is no need for a mediatory role what we need is direct and genuine negotiations.
You mentioned that there is no need for a mediatory role, it has been said that both Kuwait's Emir and Nawaz Sharif acted as a mediator to bring the viewpoints of Iran and Saudi Arabia close together…
I am confident of their goodwill. There are also other regional states that pursue a bridge between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Such countries believe that the key to peace and stability in the region lies in strong and constructive relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Saudis used to stand firm against Iran's nuclear program, they have recently endorsed a comprehensive nuclear agreement. What is the driving force behind the shift in their policy? Is it an agreement with 5+1 countries or the US pressure on Saudi officials? Some say that President Obama has put pressure on Saudis in his visit …
I think that Iran and Saudi Arabia and all countries in the region are acutely aware of the importance of their relations. Mistrust and misunderstandings are major obstacles in the way of establishing constructive relations. I believe there is no need for trans-regional recommendations and all the Muslim states in the region are aware of the crucial importance of their relations with Tehran in this historic period of time and are determined to come back to Khatami and Rafsanjani's tenure and even establishing more enhanced relations.
So the agreement with 5+1 would not affect Saudi's foreign policy towards Iran?
It is an undeniable fact that changes in Iran's relations with European and Asian countries affect its relations with the rest of the world.
What about the rush for Iran bonanza? Political and trade delegations from all over the world visited Iran during the past weeks. Besides Kuwait, a Qatari delegation headed by Deputy Foreign Minister of Qatar visited Bushehr. An Emirati and several European trade delegations paid visits to Iran. What is the impact of these visits upon Iran-Saudi relations?
Global and regional affairs are tied to each other and countries are not isolated in the world. It is even more noticeable in the region and among neighboring countries. It is not possible to be indifferent to regional incidents. When the Kuwait's oil wells were attacked by Iraq, there were consequences for both neighbors and Asian countries. I believe that the fate of the countries in the region is tied together.
How can the visits to Iran affect our relations with the Arab world? GCC states are influential in the region. Do bilateral relations affect the relations between Iran and other Arab states?
They surely do. These visits to Iran hint that firstly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has adopted a conciliatory tone towards Tehran's neighbors since taking office last year. Secondly, Arab states are determined to improve ties with Iran and this could resolve disputes between some of their neighbors and Iran. Lastly, not just the land and maritime borders but the historical and cultural commonalities are of crucial importance in regulating relations between the countries in the region.
Is improving the relations recommended by trans-regional countries? Did United States Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel make any recommendations in his visit to Saudi Arabia?
As I mentioned earlier, there are some impacts but what matters is that Mr. Rouhani's conciliatory tone resulted in a shift in Saudi's policies. Both Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Zarif have said that they are determined to improve relations with Saudi Arabia. It is time for a turnabout in attitudes throughout the region.
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia consider themselves in the center of Islam in today's world. They are perceived as bitter rivals. Does Iran's return to its golden days and power in the region worry Riyadh as a threat to their interests?
With a considerable experience in Arabian and African countries I firmly believe that our words are far from reality. Protection of national and international interests would not be possible with an approach of denial and that is indisputable in Iran - Saudi relations. The two countries have mutual interests and a constructive competition leads to growth and prosperity in the two countries and brings peace, stability and security for the region.
But these countries with the help of trans-regional players spread Iranophobia through the region.
President Rouhani's conciliatory approach will balance out the phobia. We need a comprehensive judgment. There were certainly some behaviors and actions which resulted in such phobia. We cannot expect a friendly approach while acting against international practices. Our enemies at that time took advantage and exaggerated some remarks and policies. They spread an unrealistic phobia and anti-Iranian sentiment in the Arab world for their own good. In my assumption, a realistic approach and reasonable policies in Iran put an end to such perceptions.
What are the measures to be taken by the other side? Iran has shown goodwill and it is now up to them. Does the replacement of some Saudi officials affect the relations between the two countries? It has been said that Saud al-Faisal is to be replaced with King Abdullah's son who is currently the Deputy Foreign Minister and has a more positive approach towards Iran.
As I said, in a country like Saudi Arabia, the system of governance and the authorities make the decisions on foreign policy and individuals are not influential in the way that you described. Saud al-Faisal is currently the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia and has had a major role in Iran -Saudi relations. He has been in power since the presidency of Mr. Rafsanjani in Iran and I am not sure whether he is going to be replaced.