The success of nuclear talks in Geneva have triggered the first signs of a possible de-escalation of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose regional rivalry has acquired a sharp sectarian edge in recent years.
In their first official remarks after Iran and the six global powers signed a nuclear deal in the early hours on Sunday, Saudi authorities signaled that a potential opportunity had been created to improve regional security. “If there is goodwill, then this agreement could be an initial step toward reaching a comprehensive solution to Iran's nuclear programme,” said that Saudi Cabinet in a statement.
The Saudis also hoped that the Geneva agreement would lead to the removal of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, from West Asia—a veiled reference to Israel—as well as the Gulf region, which includes Iran.
The cautious welcome accorded to the Geneva deal, marks a significant shift, at least on paper, from previous positions adopted by Saudi officials, who had expressed deep reservations, if not hostility, to a possible thaw in ties between Iran and the West.
As the talks in the Swiss city were underway, Saudi ambassador to Britain, Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, warned that the Kingdom would not “sit idly by” if world powers failed to halt Iran’s nuclear programme. In an interview last Friday with the British daily, The Times, Prince Mohammed also called Washington’s perceived “rush” to engage with Tehran “incomprehensible”.
“Appeasement hasn’t worked in the past, and I don’t think it will work in the 21st century,” he was quoted as saying.
Some analysts say that rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia escalated following Iran’s growing influence in Iraq and Lebanon—two countries with a majority Shia population, as well as Syria, where the majority is Sunni, but the leadership is Alawite; a Shia offshoot. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have openly supported the armed opposition against the government of President Bashar Al-Assad that is heavily backed by Tehran.
In Iran, the country’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif has reached out to his oil-rich Gulf neighbours, including Saudi Arabia—his initiative adroitly timed with the commencement of the Geneva conference. In an opinion piece that appeared in the Saudi owned Asharq Al-Awsat, Mr. Zarif sought to reassure “friends in our immediate neighbourhood” that the resolution of the nuclear issue was not being “pursued at their expense”. The minister added: “We recognise that we cannot promote our interests at the expense of others. This is particularly the case in relation to counterparts so close to us that their security and stability are intertwined with ours. Thus, notwithstanding the focus on our interactions with the West, the reality is that our primary foreign policy priority is our region.”
The minister proposed establishment of a formal structure, functioning under the United Nations system that would bring together eight littoral countries of the Gulf region working on a common and expanding agenda. “The challenges and opportunities that we face are enormous. They range from environmental degradation to sectarian tension, from extremism and terrorism to arms control and disarmament, and from tourism and economic and cultural cooperation to confidence-building and security-enhancing measures.”
Beyond the political, the fall-out of Geneva accord, which includes the partial lifting of sanctions, has begun to spark some commercial activity in Iran. Bloomberg is reporting that Iranian rial has gained almost 4 percent against the dollar in the unregulated market since the deal was signed early on November 24. Hossein Ghazavi, a former Iranian deputy central bank governor, was quoted as saying that the agreement would “provide international and regional financial institutions a freer hand to consider more finance for projects and trade in Iran”.