The Game of Thrones in the Middle East took a strange new turn this week with Iran launching a charm offensive to improve relations with longtime nemesis and archfoe Saudi Arabia. Last week, the Saudis were threatening to get their own bomb unless Washington “cut off the head of the snake” — ie stopped Iran from getting the bomb. And now the snake wants to kiss and make up? As the WSJ reports:
Iran’s diplomatic overture to Saudi Arabia this week appeared designed to smooth over allegations that Tehran had tried to assassinate a top Saudi envoy, suggesting Iran is stepping up efforts to safeguard its role as a key Middle East power player…The Arab Spring, which upended old dictators, forced both Iran and Saudi Arabia to examine alliances and act assertively, and often at odds with one another, most notably in Bahrain and Syria.With Iran already at loggerheads with the West, its leaders have worried that a continuing rift with Saudi Arabia would compromise Tehran’s standing in the region, analysts say.
The mullahs are rattled. Sanctions are biting and becoming more effective as more countries and companies worry either about the Iranian bomb or the loss of access to US markets and institutions. Closer to home, the Great Satan US and the Little Satan Israel have been joined by Middle Satan Turkey: a Sunni Islamist power that is surfing the Islamist tsunami the mullahs once hoped would carry them to power in the region. Islamist revivals in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and elsewhere are taking their cue from Sunni Turkey, not Shia Iran. Worse still from the mullahs’ perspective. hatred and loathing of the Assad government in Syria is consolidating Sunni support for Turkey and against Iran throughout the region, even as the potential fall of Assad threatens to isolate Iran’s other ally Hezbollah.Iranian overtures to the Saudis make sense in this context. The Iranians know that the House of Saud is suspicious of Turkish Islamism (much milder and more secular than Saudi Wahabism) and that the Saudis are unlikely to welcome a more Ottoman-like policy by the Turks. (The Ottomans and the Wahabis were often bitter rivals and the Saudis have done their best to purge Mecca and Medina of the architectural and theological traditions of the Ottoman era.)A realpolitik entente between Iran and Saudi Arabia is not unthinkable if Turkish power continues to grow (if only because very little is unthinkable in the Middle East). At present, however, Iran is still too threatening, and the Saudis are too eager to disassemble the “Shia Crescent” stretching from Lebanon through Syria, Iraq and Iran to warm much to Tehran. In any case, the Iranians would have to give up any support for the aspirations of their coreligionists on the Arab side of the Gulf for the two countries to reach a meeting of the minds. It is not at all clear that they could do that, or that even if they did they could prove it to Saudi satisfaction. Trust levels are low.For now, do not expect much snake kissing in Riyadh. A diplomatic revolution in the Middle East that would put Saudi Arabia and Iran on the same page is highly unlikely in the near term, but it makes sense for both sides to keep a channel open. Times will change, and when they do, regional alignments could also shift.