In their report to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Amman on Feb. 19, the two high-ranking Saudi Princes Bandar bin Sultan and Muqrin bin Abdelaziz had fulsome praise for Iran’s leaders who, they said, were standing by the commitments on Lebanon they had made in secret talks with Riyadh.
In their negotiations on Lebanon, the princes were convinced that the fiery, intransigent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was only a front man for stirring up popular emotions at home and among Muslims worldwide. The real decision-making reposes in the hands of sane, rational and pragmatic politicians, who know their limitations.
The Saudis reported to Washington the successful ploy they pulled off in mid-January by persuading Iran’s national security adviser Ali Larijani to accept a secret arrangement for preserving the Fouad Siniora government in Beirut and calling off the Hizballah-led pro-Syrian bloc’s campaign for its ouster.
Larijani was given to understand that a pre-condition for keeping the Saudi track to Washington and the Arab world open was Siniora’s survival as Lebanese prime minister. This issue is of supreme interest to Riyadh. The Iranian asked for time to check with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Within 48 hours, he reported back to princes Bandar and Muqrin that Iran would play ball and had put the protest campaign against the Lebanese government on ice.
The Saudi princes were impressed by the way the Iranians did business and explained why to Condoleezza Rice.
Tehran overrides Syria’s word in Lebanon
First: The Iranians demonstrated absolute control over Hizballah and held its secretary general Hassan Nasrallah to instantaneous obedience – even if he had to pay for it by his credibility at home.
Second: Iran was able to override Damascus’ say-so in Lebanon and the Hizballah. President Bashar Assad’s protests against shelving the campaign to topple the Siniora government went unheeded. He was helpless to oppose Tehran’s new Lebanese policy.
The princes praised as “excellent” the cooperation between the Saudi ambassador in Beirut Abdelaziz Hujja and his Iranian opposite number, Mohammed Reza Shebani.
On Feb. 25, Shebani himself publicly complimented the seriousness of the consultations conducted between Tehran and Riyadh and their contribution towards de-escalating the regional crisis and the confrontation between the Beirut government and opposition camps.
The senior Iranian diplomat then delivered a comment which effectively condemned Assad to stew in his own predicament:
“All regional and domestic parties agree on the need to disclose the truth about the 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri,” he said.
That same day, the former Lebanese prime minister, the Sunni Muslim Salim al-Hoss, set out for Tehran, presumably on a government mission to find out more about the Iranian-Saudi deal for extricating Lebanon from its political crisis. Earlier, this respected Lebanese statesman visited Saudi Arabia and Syria, where he said he had been struck by the crucial role Tehran was now playing in Lebanese affairs.
Tehran’s apparent readiness to part ways with Syria and turn its back on Assad’s vital interests is, in the Saudi view, a strikingly important development. At the same time, the princes advised treating this show of readiness to ditch their ally with caution.