Tehran tends to give events a hard push rather than waiting for them to happen. This tendency produced the following report in the Iranian news agency Fars on Wednesday Jan.15:
Mujtahid, a whistleblower who is well connected with the inner circles of the Saudi Royal family and secret service, revealed through his twitter account that Prince Bandar had asked Adnan Khashoggi, a Saudi businessman and broker, to help Saudi Arabia improve its ties with Iran.
Iranians trust Khashoggi and consider him a good broker for those western companies which will turn to Iran after the removal of sanctions, the Saudi whistleblower said, adding that Bandar wants to benefit from the Iranians’ belief in Khashoggi.
This is an unusual report for the Iranian agency to run, but it was apparently meant as a hint that Tehran is dogging the footsteps of its most obdurate Middle East foe, is aware of the Director of Saudi Intelligence, Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s coming trip to Washington, and hopes it will help ease his animosity.
This report would not have attracted much notice a year ago. But since then, Bandar has given Washington a wide berth, whereas he visited Moscow twice – once in April 2013, for a seven-hour conversation with President Vladimir Putin, and again, on July 31, for another meeting with Putin.
Bandar stepped on Obama’s toes at every opportunity
The Fars report reflects the belief in some Iranian circles that Riyadh may have begun taking stock of the shifting balance of political power taking place in the region (see first article in this issue) and leaning towards a pragmatic assessment of where it stands in relation to those changes – even possibly departing from the line led by Bandar for the last six months for stepping on Obama’s toes at every opportunity.
Financial aid to Egypt from Riyadh and other Gulf states to the tune of $12 bn enabled the military junta headed by Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to ignore Obama administration threats that continued persecution of the ousted Muslim Brotherhood would cost Cairo US economic and military aid.
In Syria and Lebanon, the Saudis backed radical Islamist militias to Washington’s surprise and chagrin and gave them arms, money and intelligence assistance for attacking pro-American rebel militias. As a result, the Free Syrian Army fell apart and vanished from the Syrian battlefield.
Closer to home, the Saudis pushed and pulled their Gulf neighbors to turn the General Cooperation Council against President Obama’s détente with Tehran and his ineffectual steps for curbing Iran’s nuclear aspirations.
Zarif employs Lebanese Druze leader as softener in Riyadh
But it soon became clear that Riyadh was not having much success with its Gulf allies. Oman’s ruler Sultan Qaboos provided Washington and Tehran with a diplomatic pipeline; Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashed al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, called for the lifting of sanctions against Iran just this week.
And Thursday, Jan. 16, Iran rode in on divided Gulf ranks to invite all its rulers for a collective visit to the Bushehr nuclear reactor.
No date was set for the trip which if and when it takes place would be tantamount to the Gulf region recognizing Iran’s nuclear status.
So this week, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources were not too surprised to detect signs of a change of heart towards Tehran in Riyadh.
As encouragement, Tehran applied another push.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, while engaged in Beirut this week in an effort to assemble a national unity government, found time for a secret side-trip to the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt with a request to send an emissary to Riyadh bearing an invitation for Saudi Arabia to join Iran’s political initiative in Beirut.
Zarif convinced Jumblatt that it had a good chance of succeeding with Saudi cooperation.
The emissary was sent to Riyadh and returned Tuesday, Jan. 14, with a positive answer. Saudi Arabia was willing in principle to go along with Iran’s plan for bringing political stability to Lebanon.
First signs of a change of heart in Riyadh
Still to come is the bargaining over Saudi terms for the partnership. It also remains to be worked out how Hizballah, Iran’s foremost ally and a bitter enemy of the Saudi royal house, fits into a joint Iranian-Saudi enterprise for Lebanon.
All the same, a door has opened for Saudi-Iranian dialogue.
Does this mean that the Saudis have decided they are not up to contending with the three-pronged front the US, Russia and Iran are tightening around the oil kingdom for dominating the Middle East?
This question will be nearer an answer at the end of Prince Bandar’s Washington visit, which in itself signals a possible breakthrough towards healing some of the acrimony marring relations between the Saudis and the Obama administration.
And if their talks go really well, Washington might even undertake to broker reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran.