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

    Post-White House, Obamas to Rent Washington Mansion

    Nine-bedroom home is 3 kilometers from Oval Office, near capital's Embassy Row; rent estimated at around $22,000 a month

    Red Planet? Not so much!

    New research suggest that Mars is in a warm period between cyclical ice ages, and that during Ice Age Maximum over 500,000 years ago, the red planet was decidedly ice, and much whiter to the naked eye.

    Taj Mahal Battles New Threat from Insects

    Swarms of insects are proliferating in the heavily contaminated waters of the Yamuna River, which flows behind the 17th century monument

    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.
    Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnami
    X
    Elizabeth Lee
    May 22, 2016 6:04 AM
    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnam

    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video First-generation, Afghan-American Student Sets Sights on Basketball Glory

    Their parents are immigrants to the United States. They are kids who live between two worlds -- their parents' homeland and the U.S. For many of them, they feel most "American" at school. It can be tricky balancing both worlds. In this report, produced by Beth Mendelson, Arash Arabasadi tells us about one Afghan-American student who seems to be coping -- one shot at a time.
    Video

    Video Newest US Citizens, Writing the Next Great Chapter

    While universities across the United States honor their newest graduates this Friday, many immigrants in downtown Manhattan are celebrating, too. One hundred of them, representing 31 countries across four continents, graduated as U.S. citizens, joining the ranks of 680,000 others every year in New York and cities around the country.
    Video

    Video Vietnam Sees Strong Economic Growth Despite Incomplete Reforms

    Vietnam has transformed its communist economy to become one of the world's fastest-growing nations. While the reforms are incomplete, multinational corporations see a profitable future in Vietnam and have made major investments -- as VOA's Jim Randle reports.
    Video

    Video Qatar Denies World Cup Corruption

    The head of Qatar’s organizing committee for the 2022 World Cup insists his country's bid to host the soccer tournament was completely clean, despite the corruption scandals that have rocked the sport’s governing body, FIFA. Hassan Al-Thawadi also said new laws would offer protection to migrants working on World Cup construction projects. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Infrastructure Funding Puts Cambodia on Front Line of International Politics

    When leaders of the world’s seven most developed economies meet in Japan next week, demands for infrastructure investment world wide will be high on the agenda. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push for “quality infrastructure investment” throughout Asia has been widely viewed as a counter to the rise of Chinese investment flooding into region.
    Video

    Video Democrats Fear Party Unity a Casualty in Clinton-Sanders Battle

    Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton claimed a narrow victory in Tuesday's Kentucky primary even as rival Bernie Sanders won in Oregon. Tensions between the two campaigns are rising, prompting fears that the party will have a difficult time unifying to face the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Portrait of a Transgender Marriage: Husband and Wife Navigate New Roles

    As controversy continues in North Carolina over the use of public bathrooms by transgender individuals, personal struggles with gender identity that were once secret are now coming to light. VOA’s Tina Trinh explored the ramifications for one couple as part of trans.formation, a series of stories on transgender issues.
    Video

    Video Amerikan Hero Flips Stereotype of Middle Eastern Character

    An Iranian American comedian is hoping to connect with American audiences through a film that inverts some of Hollywood's stereotypes about Middle Eastern characters. Sama Dizayee reports.
    Video

    Video Budding Young Inventors Tackle City's Problems with 3-D Printing

    Every city has problems, and local officials and politicians are often frustrated by their inability to solve them. But surprising solutions can come from unexpected places. Students in Baltimore. Maryland, took up the challenge to solve problems they identified in their city, and came up with projects and products to make a difference. VOA's June Soh has more on a digital fabrication competition primarily focused on 3-D design and printing. Carol Pearson narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora