TOPICS: An alliance of expediency

Reports suggesting that Iran has sought Saudi help in mediating its nuclear and other disputes with the Bush administration are wide of the mark. When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad travelled to Riyadh at the weekend, he had a wholly different object in view: wrecking the ostensibly anti-Iranian coalition of “moderate” Arab states, plus Israel, painstakingly assembled by the Americans in recent months. The summit with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah marked Iran’s most successful effort yet to break out of its made-in-Washington diplomatic straitjacket. As if to calm fears of a growing, region-wide Sunni-Shia divide, the two leaders made an ostentatious show of amity, holding hands, grinning, and posing for the cameras.

Referring to inter-communal violence in Iraq, which Washington says Shia Iran is deliberately fomenting, the king and his guest jointly pledged “to stop any attempt aimed at spreading sectarian strife in the region”. Both leaders expressed support for unity and equality in Iraq. This is a wild departure from the script promoted by the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, during recent visits. On her reading, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Gulf states face a common threat from a newly assertive, potentially nuclear-armed Iran, backed by Syria. The grand bargain devised in Washington has been plain for sometime: in return for Arab support in isolating Iran and their forbearance over Iraq, the US has offered enhanced military protection and a revived Arab-Israeli peace process. The White House meanwhile has quietly swallowed its rhetoric about “freedom’s march” and the need for Arab democratic reform.

Iran is now plunging a determined spanner into these delicate works by apparently patching things up with the House of Saud, Washington’s foremost Arab ally. And the policy may be bearing fruit. Hopes are rising in Lebanon that the tense standoff between Iranian-backed Hizbullah and the Saudi-backed Sunni-led government will soon be defused. Opposition sources said the Riyadh summit was directly responsible for the thaw. Iran and Saudi Arabia even seem to be finding some common ground on Palestine and Hamas. The Saudis are planning to relaunch their 2002 land-for-peace initiative, over Israeli and US objections, at this month’s Arab League summit in Riyadh. This also serves Iran’s aim of reducing American influence.

Analysts are sceptical about the Saudi-Iran connection, suggesting the rapprochement between the rivals is superficial at best and that the US has little to fear. “The Saudis are trying to play a diplomatic rather than a polemical role. Their differences over Lebanon for example are still immense,” said Dana Moss of the Transatlantic Institute in Brussels. “The only state Iran has to worry about in the Arab region is Saudi Arabia. It’s the only one that is equivalent in standing and prestige. And Saudi Arabia is still trying to contain Iran. This time the appro-ach is different but the nature of the threat has not changed.” — The Guardian