A “Meep Meep” Moment In The Gulf?

by Jonah Shepp

News that Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has been invited to Saudi Arabia is music to Paul Pillar’s ears. He attributes the emerging thaw between the two regional giants in large part to American leadership, though the usual suspects will deny it:

Rapprochement between Iran and its Arab neighbors is good for the neighbors as well as for Iranians, good for stability in the Persian roadrunnerGulf, and good for U.S. interests in the region.

Secretary of State Kerry’s comments welcoming the Saudi move are doubly appropriate, given that the United States can claim some of the credit because of its role in currently negotiating an agreement with Iran to keep its nuclear program peaceful.  The Saudis’ invitation is very likely being made partly in anticipation of successful completion of those negotiations and the prospect of Iran and the United States taking a step toward a more normal relationship.  This is the sequence that should be expected: the superpower leads, and lesser allies follow.  It is the sequence that should have been obvious to anyone who hasn’t been trying to spin Arab reactions to the negotiations to cast doubts on where the negotiations are going.

To Juan Cole, this overture indicates that the Saudis are copping to the ugly reality in Syria:

Bashar al-Assad has for about a year been winning the Syria war, and the rebels may not seem a very attractive investment any more.

Moreover, the most effective fighting forces have declared themselves a branch of al-Qaeda. Saudi Arabia is deathly afraid of the latter. Riyadh recently discovered a terrorist plot in which the major group fighting in Syria (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) became a threat to their own Saudi backers. That episode may soured Riyadh on the most hawkish strategy in Syria. Indeed, you could imagine a Saudi-Iran alliance against al-Qaeda affiliates, now holding territory in northern Iraq and northern Syria.

But Lina Khatib expects Iran to throw Assad under the bus for the sake of better relations with Riyadh:

The dominant wisdom has been that Iran has thrown its full weight behind Assad and that it would not abandon this ally because Assad guarantees Iran’s strategic interests in the Levant. But Assad himself is less valuable to Iran than the much-coveted nuclear arms deal. Talks between the United States and Iran appear to be heading towards a settlement, while Saudi Arabia’s softened stance towards Iran means that Iran must give Saudi Arabia something in return for cordial relations, because Saudi Arabia remains the stronger regional player in the Gulf. Assad is likely to be the least costly compromise for Iran on both fronts.

Maybe if both countries give up on their unsavory clients, it will force a settlement of the conflict that allows the sane middle to come to the fore. I’m not too sanguine that any good immediate outcome is possible for Syria (or Lebanon) after three years of perpetual disaster, but getting these major regional players to talk about cleaning up the mess in their neighborhood is crucial to end the violence, which in turn is a necessary first step toward rebuilding the shattered Levant. And it would prove that a patient, as opposed to reactive, American foreign policy pays dividends. Obama won’t get much credit—least of all from the neocons, as Pillar rightly points out—because his hand in this isn’t visible enough, but that’s sort of the point, isn’t it?