In thaw, Saudi Arabia extends invitation to Iran

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister says he has invited his Iranian counterpart for a visit, hinting at a cautious thaw between the two bitter rivals. (Reuters)

Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that it had invited Iran’s foreign minister to visit Riyadh, breaking the ice in one of the most hostile relationships in the Middle East ahead of key talks on Iran’s nuclear program in Vienna this week.

Speaking to reporters in the Saudi capital, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said the kingdom was ready to host Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif “anytime he sees fit” and indicated that Riyadh is willing to open negotiations with its nemesis on the many combustible issues dividing them.

“We are ready to receive him,” Faisal said, adding, “We will talk with them. Our hope is that Iran becomes a part of the effort to make the region as safe as possible.”

The invitation came after months of indications that the two rival powers are moving to ease tensions that have helped fuel the war in Syria and the hostilities in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen. Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran have backed opposing sides in each of the conflicts, deepening the sectarian dimension of the instability plaguing the region.

It is too early to tell, however, whether the Saudi move signals the beginnings of a broader rapprochement that could help stabilize the region, diplomats and analysts said. Iran did not issue any response, and no date has been set.

Since President Hassan Rouhani took office last year, Iran has been pushing to mend fences with Sunni states in the Persian Gulf. But Saudi Arabia has been reluctant to engage in what it fears could amount to a propaganda coup for its rival.

The kingdom also is worried that it could find itself isolated at a time when Tehran is improving its relationships not only with the West but also with many of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors. Saudi officials and Western diplomats here say the invitation represents a recognition of current realities more than a resolution of differences.

“We are practical. Iran is our neighbor. We can’t fight geography,” said Abdullah al-Askar, who heads the foreign affairs committee in Saudi Arabia’s advisory Shura Council. “But that doesn’t mean we agree with their policy.”

Riyadh is unlikely to have agreed to host a top Iranian official without securing some form of concession on at least one issue of concern to the kingdom, said Mustafa Alani of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.

“This does not come out of nowhere,” he said. “The Iranian foreign minister is not coming just to kiss cheeks. The Saudis would make very sure they are not bluffing before issuing the invite.”

Some areas of possible agreement have already emerged. One is Lebanon, which faces a potentially destabilizing deadlock between Saudi- and Iranian-backed factions over the choice of a president. The Saudi ambassador to Lebanon recently returned to the country after a long absence and has joined in the negotiations for a consensus candidate.

Rouhani and Saudi King ­Abdullah also have a history of personal interaction, dating to outreach in 2005, before either of them was in their current position, which augurs well for the possibility of improved ties, diplomats say.

A wider deal that might resolve the many overlapping crises rocking the region seems improbable in the near term, said a Western diplomat in the Saudi capital, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

“They will find certain areas where they can cooperate,” he said. “But we’re not going to see a grand bargain that will stabilize the Middle East.”

Riyadh’s gesture came as U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Saudi Arabia to reassure skeptical Persian Gulf allies that they still have Washington’s support even as the Obama administration presses ahead with efforts to strike a deal with Iran. U.S. officials traveling with Hagel welcomed the Saudi invitation, which they said they learned about from news reports.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in Washington that the United States played no role in the Saudi invitation to Iran but that “we encourage it, we welcome it.”

“We’re delighted to see our good friends, the Saudis, engage in diplomacy that may or may not be able to add any number of different possibilities in the region. They have a longstanding difficulty in that relationship, but it is completely in keeping with their prerogatives,” Kerry said at a news conference with the visiting Italian foreign minister.

Saudi Arabia has long dreaded the prospect of a nuclear deal between Iran and the United States that would enhance Iran’s prestige in the region at Saudi expense. Riyadh is also frustrated with Washington’s failure to become more actively involved in helping the rebels in Syria.

Hagel said Iran and Syria will be among the top issues he plans to discuss with his gulf counterparts, some of whom have been at odds in recent years over regional issues, including the Syrian war and the fate of post-revolutionary Egypt.

“We want to continue to reassure our partners here of U.S. commitment to this region,” Hagel told reporters en route to Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.

Hagel’s presence in the region as nuclear talks with Iran reach a potential turning point is not a coincidence, U.S. officials said. Even as it expresses high hopes for a deal with Iran, the United States wants to convey that it remains invested in the region and will continue to support Iran’s enemies militarily, the officials said.

Saudi Arabia has been buying weapons from the United States at a stunning rate in recent years. Since fall 2010, Congress has been notified of proposed sales of more than $86 billion worth of fighter planes, helicopters, bombs and missile defense systems.

Beyond Iran’s nuclear aspirations, officials in Washington and the gulf region remain worried about Tehran’s ballistic missile program, which could be left out of a final deal.

“It is very much on the minds of our gulf partners and very much on our minds,” said a senior defense official who briefed reporters en route to Saudi Arabia but was not authorized to speak on the record. Having nuclear talks moving forward “does not reduce our concern on Iran missiles,” the official added.

Londoño reported from Jiddah.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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