Alex Rowell

What Saudi-Iran talks could mean for Lebanon and the region

Signs of rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran have fuelled optimism in Lebanon, though few expect change in Syria in the short term

Saudi King Abdallah meets with Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei in Tehran in 1997.

In a potentially momentous surprise move that could herald an alleviation of political and sectarian conflict across the Middle East, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal announced on Tuesday an invitation to his Iranian counterpart to travel to Riyadh to enter negotiations over the rival countries’ “differences.”


Saudi and Iran, powerhouses of Sunni and Shiite Islam respectively, presently support opposing sides in many of the Middle East’s major confrontations, and are often seen as having radically divergent and competing visions for the future of the region.


Which is why, in Lebanon – a country where the two powers wield extensive influence over their respective allies – the news of a possible rapprochement has already sparked confidence that political deadlock on a number of key disputes may be resolved, perhaps even defying expectations of a presidential vacuum by ushering in a successor to President Michel Suleiman in time for the expiry of his term on 25 May.


“I [now] believe we will have an elected president on the 25th,” said MP Ahmad Fatfat of the Saudi-supported Future Movement. “That [Prince Faisal’s] invitation was public means they already agreed on many points under the table. That means the negotiations regarding the new president have already been done.”


Beyond the elections, Fatfat added the talks would likely also yield wider benefits in terms of security and the economy. Earlier this week, Saudi lifted what has been described as an “unofficial ban” on its citizens traveling to Lebanon, fueling hopes of a boost to the country’s struggling tourism industry. Saudi analysts concurred that the overall situation in Lebanon would likely improve in the near future.


“I think in Lebanon there is already agreement [between Saudi and Iran],” said Jamal Khashoggi, veteran Saudi journalist and former advisor to then-ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal. “The agreement in Lebanon is to contain the situation.”


In neighboring Syria, however, where Iranian-backed regime forces continue to suppress a Saudi-supported armed rebellion, Khashoggi expects very little to materialize from Saudi-Iranian talks.


“I’m not optimistic,” he told NOW. “The Saudis and Iranians are still far apart. The Iranians must relinquish their expansionism toward the Mediterranean, or we have to give up Syria. And I don’t think we can afford to give up Syria. And besides, even if we decide to give up Syria, the Syrian people are not going to give up Syria.”


“So basically, the Iranians are acting like the Israelis – they want peace, and they want to keep the land.”


Other analysts, while conceding any progress would be slow, had somewhat more positive forecasts on the Syrian front.


“[Syria] is a tough one to happen quickly, but at least if they start talking then it’s a good thing,” said Andrew Hammond, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Islamic Utopia: The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia.


“Fundamentally, the chances of the Syrian tragedy being brought to an end, or the beginning of this disaster being brought to an end, require these two countries to come to an agreement […] They are the keys to the Syrian conflict, so they have to start talking, even though it will take a long time.”


Accordingly, with little chance of the two reaching agreement on Syria in the immediate future, the talks may in fact focus on other areas of dispute, such as Iraq, where a new coalition government is being formed following parliamentary elections on 30 April.


“The other issue is Iraq, now that the election is over and all the horse-trading is beginning,” said Hammond. “I wonder whether that actually may have been the main impetus for this invitation.”


Perhaps the most significant changes resulting from Faisal’s initiative in the long run, however, will pertain to Saudi itself. Having been “shocked,” as Hammond put it, by the United States’ decision to pursue warmer ties with Tehran last year, and initially threatening a “major shift” in its relations with Washington as a consequence, Riyadh may now be grudgingly coming to terms with the new order envisaged by President Obama.


“It does suggest there is a potential for them to reassess the situation and try and move things forward, find some way of having a new relationship with the Iranians, given the fact that the Americans clearly want to move forward, and the smaller Gulf states do as well,” said Hammond.


Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

Pressed by Washington, Riyadh may be grudgingly coming to terms with the idea of a new relationship with Tehran. (AFP)

“I [now] believe we will have an elected president on the 25th."