It was Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani who broke the ice overlaying relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) with a visit to the Sultanate of Oman visit on Wednesday March 12. He came with a high-powered delegation booked to sign some impressive accords with Sultan Qaboos. One covered the construction of a highly strategic project, a new causeway spanning the Straits of Hormuz to give Iran and the GCC their first land link.
That day, a historic photo appeared on the home page of the official website of former Iranian president Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani: a 1994 photo of King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, then Saudi Crown Prince, paying a visit to the Rafsanjani residence in North Tehran. The photo is attached to this article.
Its publication for the first time is profoundly significant as a portent of the dramatic changes overtaking the Gulf-Middle East region, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and Gulf sources report.
More specifically, it was an agreed code to signal that the secret dialogue between the Iranian and Saudi governments had matured sufficiently for their reconciliation to come out in the open and become official. That dialogue was initiated after Rouhani’s election in mid-2013.
The next step was to be a royal invitation for the Iranian president to pay an early visit to Saudi Arabia.
Rouhani and Rafsanjani also hoped for an invitation to join the pilgrimage to Mecca, but this is not so far on offer.
Rafsanjani was the key which unlocked the Iranian-Saudi door:
Rafsanjani was the obvious key for opening the door to Riyadh. He has always been viewed in Tehran, Washington and Riyadh as the most ardent Saudi fan in Iran’s ruling circles. As president in the 1990s, he worked hard to improve relations with Riyadh, and subsequently stayed in touch with the Saudi royal family, especially King Abdullah, through such channels as Persian Gulf tycoons in business with Rafsanjani’s sons Mehdi and Mohsen and his daughter Faezeh.
Through them, he kept up a correspondence with Saudi friends.
In the past year, this channel worked overtime – put to use by Rafsanjani, who had become Rouhani’s mentor, to test the water for an accommodation between the new Iranian president and Riyadh.
Up until about mid-December to early January, these overtures went unanswered. Saudi rulers wanted no truck with Tehran, because they were incensed over the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Iran – first clandestine then official – which produced the six-power negotiating track and its culmination last November in an interim nuclear pact with Iran.
They accused the Americans of treachery and stabbing them in the back.
Any possible Saudi-Iranian thaw was additionally weighed down by the two governments on opposite sides of the Syrian war.
Prince Mohammed repairs relations with Washington
King Abdullah and Intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan were deeply committed to the deadly rebel fight to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iran’s leading Middle East ally.
Tehran was further dismayed by Saudi Arabia’s engagement with Pakistan for the acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability and the import of Pakistani military units – as well as Riyadh’s undercover military and intelligence relations with Israel.
Then, at the start of 2014, matters swerved sharply in a different direction.
Prince Bandar was quietly dropped as Saudi intelligence chief and supreme commander of Saudi intervention in Syria against Assad and Hizballah in Lebanon. He paid the price for falling down on his pledge to the king to personally see to Assad’s ouster, and was forced to make way for his foremost rival, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef.
This changeover enabled Riyadh to take a fresh look at the Iranian channel which Rafsanjani had kept alive.
Prince Mohammed first carried out urgent repairs on Saudi relations with the Obama administration. He started with Syria, where he instigated military and intelligence cooperation with the US.
Iran took this step as the start of Saudi Arabia’s drawdown of its intervention in the Syrian war behind the rebel cause.
Saudi breach with Qatar pleases Tehran
Next came a Saudi overture to US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, the Obama administration’s point man in its exchanges with Tehran. Prince Mohammed and Prince Muqrin Bin Abdulaziz, Second Deputy Prime Minister, who was moved into the intelligence slot, were instructed by the king to approach the American official, which Bandar had refused to do.
Rafsanjani then adopted Burns’s center of operations, the Omani capital of Muscat, as the hub for the complex and delicate exchanges leading up to a truce between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Those exchanges gained an extra spurt from Saudi steps against Qatar and the war Riyadh declared on the Muslim Brotherhood, DEBKA Weekly’s sources in the Gulf report.
On Tuesday March 11, Riyadh gave Doha a tough ultimatum: Cut ties with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, shut down the Al-Jazeera global television channel and expel local branches of the US Brookings Institution and Rand Corporation think tanks – or else face a Saudi blockade by air, land and sea.
Earlier, the Saudi ambassador was recalled from Doha and a decree branded as ‘terrorist organizations the Brotherhood, Lebanon’s Hizballah, al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and the Syrian Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra.
The king had already decreed that any Saudi fighting abroad faced 20-30-years jail sentences; and anyone joining, endorsing or providing moral or material support to groups classified as “terrorist” or “extremist” risked five to 30 years in prison.
This decree followed the gazetting of a sweeping Saudi new anti- terrorism law prohibiting “acts that disturb public order, promote insecurity, undermine national unity or harm the reputation of the kingdom.”
In moving against Qatar, Riyadh was primarily motivated by its desire to help Egyptian Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi shore up his position, while crushing the Muslim Brotherhood and running for president. However those steps brought enormous satisfaction to Iran’s rulers.
King Abdullah’s capacity for U-turns
Qatar had become one of Iran’s biggest enemies in the Gulf, owing to its backing for the Muslim Brotherhood, and military, financial and intelligence assistance to Syrian rebels. The Iranian leadership was hence overjoyed when Riyadh saved them the trouble of directly punishing Qatar.
All these events came together this week to set the stage for the Iranian president Rouhani’s epic visit to Saudi Arabia and the fruition of Rafsanjani’s ploy.
At the same time, DEBKA Weekly’s sources warn that a new Iranian-Saudi relationship is not yet worth treating as an accomplished fact.
Just seven years ago, in March 3, 2007, the Iranian president of the day, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was invited by King Abdullah for a visit to Riyadh. They were pictured holding hands as they walked out of the airport and went on to discuss how to protect the Islamic world from hostile “conspiracies."
That year too, Ahmadinejad broke new ground as the first Iranian leader to attend the GCC annual summit, which was established in the first place in 1988 to contain Revolutionary Iran’s expansionism.
Yet, before long, the Saudi King Abdullah had a change of heart and turned against Tehran. He is quite capable of repeating this turnabout once again.