News / Middle East

Column: Saudi-Iran Meeting Could Boost Fight Against Islamic State

FILE - Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian.
FILE - Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian.

To say that there are a lot of moving pieces in the Middle East these days is certainly an understatement.

From Libya to Yemen, Gaza to Iraq, outside powers are intervening in complex confrontations that pit religious fundamentalists against secularists, dictators against democrats and ethnic minorities against each other.

This week, however, there was a crucial step toward mitigating one corrosive rivalry that has fueled much of the carnage: senior Iranian and Saudi officials met for the first time since the election last year of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian described his talks with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal in Jeddah as "positive and constructive."

"Both sides emphasized the need to open a new page of political relations between the two countries," Abdollahian told the Reuters news agency.

The main topic of discussion was the shocking advance of the Islamic State group deep into Iraq and close to the borders of both Iran and Saudi Arabia. As a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted recently, “This is a tremendous threat to everybody, and it is really sharpening the minds.”

The fact that the Iranians and Saudis are talking again does not guarantee a breakthrough against Islamic State fighters, but could make it easier to build a broad coalition against the group and facilitate efforts to form a more inclusive government in Iraq and potentially, Syria.

Should it choose to do so, the U.S. can now engage Iran - a key backer of the Shi'ite-led government in Iraq and the Alawite regime in Syria - without infuriating the Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf. In the past, the U.S. declined to include Iran in negotiations over a political settlement in Syria, in part because the Saudis refused to sit at the same table with Tehran.  

Balking at sending an ambassador to Baghdad and funneling funds to Sunni rebels in Syria, the Saudis have portrayed their policies as a principled stand against Iranian expansionism and in defense of Sunni Muslim co-religionists. Now that the Sunni cause in both Iraq and Syria has been hijacked by Islamic State militants, however, the Saudis are recalibrating, recognizing a threat to their internal stability as well as to neighbors Jordan and Kuwait.

By agreeing to the removal of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki the Iranians have also shown new flexibility. It is unlikely that the meeting in Jeddah would have happened if Iran had insisted that Maliki remain.

The pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported Tuesday that Iran has also removed Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, from primary responsibility for Iraq and given the file to his deputy, Hossein Hamadani.

If the report is true - which it may be despite a denial from a conservative Iranian website - the move may be merely cosmetic but could still be helpful since Suleimani is not only closely identified with Maliki but with building and supporting Iraqi Shi'ite militias that targeted Americans in Iraq and Iraqi Sunnis after the U.S. invasion of 2003.
 
While the Obama administration denies any military coordination with Iran in Iraq, it acknowledges parallel efforts to help the Baghdad government and the Kurds. This week, while his deputy was in Jeddah, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was in Irbil for a summit with the president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), Massoud Barzani.

Barzani, at a press conference with Zarif, said Iran was “the first country to provide us with weapons” after Islamic State fighters seized Mosul and began threatening Kurdish areas two months ago.

Zarif denied that Iranian troops are fighting alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga. But Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli confirmed that Iranian “advisers” had been sent to the region at the request of the KRG.

While the Obama administration has not publicly embraced Iran’s aid, the U.S. official quoted earlier, who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity, said: “We have to be pragmatic and smart about how we approach this very complex picture … making clear they [the Iranians] understand where we think they are doing things that are not helpful but also making clear when our interests might align.”

Another key country in the emerging coalition against Islamic State militants is Turkey, which has played an ambiguous role in the past.

While many of the foreign jihadists that make up the ranks of the Islamic State group came to Syria through Turkey, the Turks have been providing humanitarian assistance to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis displaced by the latest fighting and have quietly allowed the U.S. to fly drones and possibly other aircraft over Iraq from Incirlik Air Base.

Turkey has been cautious about direct military intervention against Islamic State fighters because the militant group is holding more than 40 Turkish hostages seized at the Turkish consulate in Mosul in June. But it may be pushed to do more to help save more than 10,000 ethnic Turkmen who have been besieged by the Islamic State group for two months in the northern Iraqi town of Amerli and who are running low on water and food.

Saban Kardas, a professor at TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara, told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington earlier this week that “the hostage situation in Mosul put Turkish policy in a new delicate stage.”

However, the Islamic State group's advances against Iraqi Kurdistan and the threat to the Turkmen is pushing Turkey to rethink its policies, he said.

The Obama administration is mulling airstrikes on the Islamic State group's positions near Amerli and has also begun air surveillance in preparation for possible airstrikes on the militants' strongholds in Syria.

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, president of the Middle East Research Institute, a Kurdish think tank, told the Wilson Center audience that a “similar model should be adopted in Iraq and Syria - [the U.S.] striking from above” with local forces below.

Besides members of the Free Syria Army, Syrian Kurds could provide ground forces. One complication is that the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, a Kurdish group that controls pockets of territory in Syria and that has fought Islamic State militants successfully, is an offshoot of the PKK, a Turkish Kurdish group that remains on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.

“There are no saints in this game,” Aldeen said. “Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries - everybody who has a stake in the region needs to rethink… [IS] is a real existential threat to us all.”


Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

You May Like

Video Analysts: Beijing Parade a 'Bazaar' of Stolen Technology

Show commemorating victory over Japan in World War II involved long, medium and short range missiles, a range of tanks and 200 fighter aircraft More

Bernie Sanders Surge Reflects US Shift on Socialism

Although most analysts say it is unlikely he will get the Democratic nomination, Sanders' campaign opens up questions and issues that are otherwise marginalized More

Video On IS Frontline, Kurdish Fighters Ready for Offensive

Peshmerga soldiers say although they need more heavy artillery, they are poised to take the fight to the Islamic State extremists on their turf More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Godwin from: Nigeria
September 01, 2014 8:41 AM
I think Barbara here is implicitly soliciting for US to open up diplomatic ties with Iran. Yeah, those suggestions seem plausible, but what about Iran seeing the US as its perpetual enemy, including selling such ideology in school children, much the same way it is done in Gaza to hate USA and Israel which they regard as evil? What about Iran’s human rights records, crackdown on dissent and suppression of minorities, including non-inclusive regime that discriminates against other religions?

What about mutual disagreements in places like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Syria? These are gaps that need to be bridged before that level that Barbara is looking at. I should suggest rather that Iran should show signs of repentance before the US reins in the initiative to reopen diplomatic channels. Iran should also make good on the US and IAEA demand on its nuclear ambition

by: JustDoug from: Seattle
August 31, 2014 5:51 PM
There are only three things of importance in the middle east: water, oil, and money. Take any of those three away and the problem is solved. USA has more oil than they do...Let's get to it.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Drowned Migrant Toddler Photo Triggers European Outragei
X
Henry Ridgwell
September 04, 2015 11:36 AM
The harrowing picture of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach appears to have galvanized Europe’s leaders into doing more to address the refugee crisis. France, Germany and Italy issued a joint call Thursday for compulsory quotas of refugees for all EU states. But there were chaotic scenes in Hungary as police tried to force migrants off a train heading for Austria. Henry Ridgwell has more. And a caution, some of the images in this report may be disturbing.
Video

Video Drowned Migrant Toddler Photo Triggers European Outrage

The harrowing picture of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach appears to have galvanized Europe’s leaders into doing more to address the refugee crisis. France, Germany and Italy issued a joint call Thursday for compulsory quotas of refugees for all EU states. But there were chaotic scenes in Hungary as police tried to force migrants off a train heading for Austria. Henry Ridgwell has more. And a caution, some of the images in this report may be disturbing.
Video

Video Russians Observe 11th Anniversary of Beslan School Attack

This week, Russians have been observing the 11th anniversary of the attack by Islamic militants on a school in Russia's North Caucasus region that killed more than 330 hostages, including 186 children. The three-day siege and massacre that started on September 1, 2004 took place in Beslan, a town in the republic of North Ossetia, and is one of the bloodiest terrorist acts ever in Russia. VOA's Mike Richman reports.
Video

Video Native Americans Debate: Father Serra, Saint or Sinner?

Pope Francis will canonize an 18th century missionary to Spanish California during a papal visit to the United States this month.  But some Native Americans have criticized the elevation to sainthood of the missionary priest, Junipero Serra. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan has more from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Kurdish Fighters on IS Frontline Ready for Offensive

Finger on the trigger, the Kurdish Peshmerga soldier stared across the dust at a village taken over by Islamic State extremists. The Kurdistan’s Khazir frontline, just 45 minutes from the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul. And at this point, the militants were less than two kilometers away. VOA's Sharon Behn reports.
Video

Video China Announces Troop Cuts at WWII Parade

Chinese President Xi Jinping Thursday announced plans to cut the world’s largest military force by 300,000 troops. The announcement was made during a massive military parade to commemorate victory over Japan in World War II. The event was shunned by most Western leaders and for some is raising fresh concerns about China’s military ambitions. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video Russia-Japan Relations Cool as Putin Visits China for WWII Anniversary

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Beijing for commemorations of the 70th anniversary of China's WWII victory over Japan. Putin is expected to visit Japan later this year, but tensions between Tokyo and Moscow over islands disputed since the war, and sanctions over Ukraine, could pour cold water on the plan. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Yemen ‘on Brink of Disaster’ as Medical Shortages Soar

Aid agencies warn Yemen is on the brink of humanitarian disaster – with up to half a million children facing severe malnutrition, and hospitals running out of basic medicines. There are fears Yemen's civil war could escalate as the coalition led by Saudi Arabia tries to drive back Houthi rebels, who seized control of much of the country earlier this year. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Apps Helping Kenyan Businesses Stay Ahead of Counterfeiters

Counterfeit goods in Kenya cost the government as much as $1 billion each year in lost tax revenues. The fake goods also hurt entrepreneurs who find it hard to carve out a niche in the market and retain customers. But as Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi, information technology is being used to try to beat the problem.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.

VOA Blogs