Saudi’s Faisal Warms Up to Iran...Conceding Nothing

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi looks past his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu during the opening of a ministerial meeting in the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah, by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation on 13 May 2013. (Photo: AFP - STR)

By: Elie Chalhoub

Published Thursday, May 16, 2013

Tehran’s effort to court Saudi Arabia on a Syria settlement has failed after an outwardly friendly meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers did not achieve anything of substance.

According to high-level Iranian sources, the meeting that took place in Jeddah on Sunday, May 12, between Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi and his Saudi counterpart, Saud al-Faisal, may have been amicable, but in substance, little was gained.

In fact, the same sources report that the Saudi minister was largely unresponsive on the key issue of Syria, instead reproaching Salehi about Iran’s meddling in Yemen and Bahrain.

“Where are you going with this? What is it that you are after?” the same sources report Faisal as saying on the Yemen issue. “We feel that the region is tense. The security of the Gulf that you talk about requires more careful steps.”

He then raised the question of Bahrain, without mentioning the country by name, again raising concerns about Iran’s involvement. Salehi’s reply was conciliatory, offering his country as a mediator between the opposition and the regime, refusing that such efforts be secret, as Manama had requested.

Salehi had opened the meeting by talking about Syria and the need for Saudi Arabia to play more of a role in any coming settlement, in the hope of exploiting differences that are said to have emerged among the Arab Gulf nations over the Syria crisis.

Lately, some political observers have suggested that Riyadh is gradually taking over the Syria file from the more hawkish Qatar, and is preparing for a settlement. They argue, however, that the Saudi strategy is to escalate on a number of regional fronts in order to improve their chances on the negotiating table.

Riyadh’s approach was reflected in a recent meeting of six regional foreign ministers (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, UAE, Egypt, and Turkey) in Abu Dhabi on Monday night, whose attendees issued a statement that “there is no place” for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the future of the country.

Despite declaring that the Geneva agreement provides “the appropriate basis for a solution,” they reaffirmed their support for both the political and armed opposition and blamed the regime for the continuing violence on the ground.

On a related issue, Tehran has now twice postponed a visit from Qatari foreign minister Hamad Bin Jassim al-Thani. The first delay due to Salehi’s meeting with Faisal, and the second due to “an urgent engagement,” according to Iranian sources.

The same sources suggest that Qatar is uneasy about being left out of the negotiations underway regarding a Syria settlement, fearing that Riyadh and Tehran will have a bigger say in setting the terms of any future resolution to a conflict in which Doha has staked so much.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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