Much attention has been focused on the possibility of a rapprochement between the United States and Iran, expressed most recently in a letter President Obama addressed to Iran’s supreme leader, which was leaked to the media. But another diplomatic encounter could prove almost as consequential: the possible thawing of bad blood between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
These two longstanding rivals have lots of reasons to hate each other: Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran are competing for leadership of the Islamic world. But it’s not just 14 centuries of sectarianism that divides them. Saudi Arabia is run by a royal family, while Iran is run by revolutionary clerics who overthrew a royal family. For decades, these two countries have competed with one another for dominance in the region in a Cold War-style conflict that has fanned the flames of sectarianism across the Middle East. Indeed, the civil war in Syria can be viewed as proxy war between Saudi Arabia, which funds Sunni rebels, and Iran, which uses Shiite militias to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad, who belongs to a Shiite minority sect.
The situation has left US foreign policy in a straitjacket: If the United States tries to topple Assad, then Iran’s Shiite militias will take their revenge in Syria and Iraq. But if the United States makes an accommodation with Assad, then Saudi Arabia will feel betrayed, and lash out by funding ever-more radical Sunni insurgents.
Peace won’t return to Syria without some kind of agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This could be the silver lining to the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a force so frightening that both Saudi Arabia and Iran oppose it. That’s why rare meetings between Iranian officials and the Saudi royal family could be game-changing. In September, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud met in New York, their first face-to-face talks since a new Iranian president was elected last year. A visit by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian to Prince Saud in Riyadh occurred a month earlier. Perhaps the most hopeful sign of a thaw was the recent decision of Saudi King Abdullah to suspend the death sentence of a prominent Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia. Iranian officials had warned that killing Ayatollah Sheikh Nimr Baqer al-Nimr would destroy the chances of peace between Sunni and Shiite. The United States should do what it can to encourage better relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. If the United States does manage to reach a deal with Iran, US diplomats will have to work hard to convince a skeptical Saudi Arabia that the United States is not siding with its greatest enemy.