Atul Aneja

Ahmadinejad's visit to Riyadh holds promise

DUBAI: The political dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia has gathered momentum with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visiting Riyadh on Saturday for talks.

In the Saudi capital, Mr. Ahmadinejad would be the guest of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz during his three-day visit.

His visit caps regular meetings between the head of Iran's National Security Council, Ali Larijani, and his Saudi counterpart, Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

Analysts point out that both Iran, which exercises considerable influence among the region's Shias, and Saudi Arabia, a leading Sunni nation, have decided to work together to defuse growing sectarian tensions in the region. The Sunni-Shia divide is threatening a civil war in Iraq, which has a majority Shia population. It is also threatening to splinter Lebanon, where the pro-Iran Hizbollah has a large following.

Positive results

Diplomatic sources point out that earlier talks between Mr. Lairjani and Prince Bandar have focused on the crisis in Lebanon. This interaction has yielded positive results, and has encouraged the two sides to expand on their initiative.

During a visit to Tehran in late January, Prince Bandar said that besides Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iran had discussed the situation in Iraq. On the eve of Mr. Ahmadinejad's visit, Iran's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Hosseini, was quoted as saying, "the two Islamic countries can play effective roles in resolving problems confronting the region and the Islamic world." Sources point out that the Americans have not opposed Saudi Arabia's efforts to reach out to the Iranians. Prince Bandar has remained in regular touch with Elliot Abrams, the Middle East (West Asia) Director at the U.S. National Security Council and apprised him of Riyadh's moves in the region.

However, observers say that the talks with Tehran appeared to have gathered momentum of their own, and Saudi Arabia may be playing an "independent" role, not always in accordance with Washington's wishes. Last month, Saudi Arabia hosted the Makkah conference, which resulted in an agreement between feuding Palestinian organisations to form a unity government.