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 Video Claims to Show Shia Forces in Iraq Executing Sunni Boy

update While not yet independently confirmed, brutal killing already has gotten attention of Islamic State followers on social media More

After Six Years, Little Change for Niger Delta's Former Militants

Nigerians who laid down arms in exchange for government amnesty subsidies fear program may end with upcoming presidential elections More

Vietnam Pushes for More Educated Drivers to Curb Road Deaths

Transportation officials hope that making a greater effort to get drivers to learn the rules of the road will reduce fatal crashes 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.
NASA Spacecraft Approaches a Dwarf Planeti
X
George Putic
March 04, 2015 8:51 PM
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will make history on Friday, March 6, when it becomes the first man-made object to orbit a dwarf planet named Ceres. It is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, almost 500 million kilometers from Earth. Among other objectives, Dawn will try to examine two mysterious bright white spots detected on the planet’s surface. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video NASA Spacecraft Approaches a Dwarf Planet

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will make history on Friday, March 6, when it becomes the first man-made object to orbit a dwarf planet named Ceres. It is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, almost 500 million kilometers from Earth. Among other objectives, Dawn will try to examine two mysterious bright white spots detected on the planet’s surface. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Young Muslims Radicalized Online

Young Muslims are being radicalized ‘in their bedrooms’ through direct contact with Islamic State or ISIL fighters via the Internet, according to terror experts. There are growing concerns that authorities and Internet providers are not doing enough to counter online extremism - which analysts say is spread by a prolific network of online supporters around the world. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video African Americans Recall 1960's Fight For Voting Rights

U.S. President Barack Obama and thousands of people will gather in the small southern U.S. city of Selma, Alabama, Saturday, March 7th to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a historic voting rights march that became known as “Bloody Sunday." VOA’s Chris Simkins traveled to Alabama and introduces us to some of the foot soldiers of the voting rights struggles of the 1960’s.
Video

Video Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Image

Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Cyber War Rages Between Iran, US

A newly published report indicates Iran and the United States have increased their cyber attacks on each other, even as their top diplomats are working toward an agreement to guarantee Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon and to free Iran from international sanctions. The development is part of a growing global trend. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Answers Elude Families of MH370 Passengers

For the families on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, an airline official’s statement nearly one year ago that the plane had lost contact with air traffic control at 2:40 AM is the only thing that remains confirmed. William Ide reports.
Video

Video Land Disputes Arise Amid Uganda Oil Boom

Ugandan police say there has been a sharp increase in land disputes, with 10 new cases being reported each day. The claims come amid an oil boom as investors appear to be cashing in by selling parcels of land to multiple buyers. Meanwhile, the people who have been living on the land for decades are chased away, sometimes with a heavy hand. VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
Video

Video In Russia, Many Doubt Opposition Leader's Killer Will Be Found

The funeral has been held in Moscow for Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader who was assassinated late Friday just meters from the Kremlin. Nemtsov joins a growing list of outspoken critics of Russia under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin who are believed to have been murdered for their work. VOA’s Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Simulated Astronauts Get Taste of Mars, in Hawaii

For generations, people have dreamed of traveling to Mars to explore Earth's closest planetary neighbor. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that while space agencies like NASA are planning manned missions to the planet, some volunteers in Hawaii are learning how humans will cope with months in isolation on a Mars base.
Video

Video Destruction of Iraq Artifacts Shocks Archaeologists

The city of Mosul was once one of the most culturally rich and religiously diverse cities in Iraq. That tradition is under attack by members of the Islamic State who have made Mosul their capital city. The Mosul Museum is the latest target of the group’s campaign of terror and destruction, and is of grave concern to archaeologists around the world. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More