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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Middle East politics: Tripolar


The outcome of the coming phase of the struggle for dominance in the Middle East will be strongly influenced by the development of the three-cornered relationship between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria. The main change over the past few weeks has been the decision of Saudi Arabia to become more actively engaged in regional diplomacy, involving intensive discussions with Iran, as the next landmark in the nuclear dispute approaches, and a decisive intervention in the Palestine question to prevent the Hamas-Fatah feud degenerating into civil war. The blossoming of the Saudi-Iranian relationship has been a source of anxiety for Syria, as it threatens to undermine its own strategic alliance with Tehran, which is the source of much of the Assad regime's ability to project its influence in Lebanon and on the Palestinian scene.

A series of visits to Saudi Arabia by Ali Larijani, the head of Iran's national security council and chief negotiator on the nuclear question, has reflected the growing concern in Iran about the risks of persisting with a confrontational approach to the international community and to its immediate neighbours. The appearance of articles in the conservative press blaming the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for uniting the world against Iran and for mismanaging the economy pointed to a reassessment at the heart of the Iranian regime about how best to handle the nuclear question and regional relations.

Taking stock

Iran has had to take stock of the fact the UN Security Council has passed a resolution imposing sanctions on it, without serious demur from Russia or China, and that the US administration has decided to adopt a more robust military posture in Iraq and to beef up its naval forces in the Gulf, despite its heavy losses in the mid-term elections. There is now every prospect of sanctions being toughened, unless Iran agrees to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, and Iran has to reckon with the possibility that the US may launch a military strike against it at any moment, either using the pretext of hostile Iranian actions in Iraq or claiming that a pre-emptive attack was needed to prevent the nuclear programme passing the point of no return.

Talking to Saudi Arabia provides Iran with the means to arrive at a better understanding of US intentions. Mr Larijani's opposite number on the Saudi side, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdelaziz, served for 22 years as ambassador in Washington, until his recall in 2005, and enjoyed (and by all accounts continues to enjoy) privileged access to the Bush administration. Through Prince Bandar, Iran can also be confident of delivering a message to Washington about its own intentions--although there can be no assurance how much credence Saudi Arabia or the US would have in any Iranian statements of intent.

Iran's overriding objective has seemed to be to complete its mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle, thereby giving it the theoretical capability of developing nuclear weapons, but not at any cost. The message being delivered through the Saudis and in Mr Larijani's recent discussions with the EU and with Mohammed El-Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Authority is that Iran is interested in resuming negotiations, but it not prepared to capitulate to the conditions set by the UN Security Council.

Actions speak louder than words

The difficulty for Iran is that unless it agrees to a verifiable suspension of its enrichment activities, there can be little confidence that negotiations are anything other than a stalling tactic. In this respect the engagement with Saudi Arabia has given Iran an opportunity to show evidence of its goodwill in areas of interest to the Saudis. The Mecca agreement between the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Hamas leader, Khaled al-Mishaal, came only a few weeks after a similar encounter in Damascus failed to yield any results. Although Hamas did not make any major concessions in Mecca, the imprimatur of Mr Mishaal in the holiest city of Islam gave the agreement a credibility that previous accords negotiated by Mr Abbas with the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh lacked. The agreement has every appearance as having been secured through Saudi and Iranian diplomacy, breaking an effective veto that Syria has previously exercised through its hosting of Mr Mishaal and of Ramadan Shallah, the head of Islamic Jihad. (Mr Shallah was in Tehran on the eve of the Mecca talks.) Syria has sought to claim some retrospective credit for the Mecca agreement, but has conspicuously not received any acknowledgement from Saudi Arabia.

Iran has some leverage over Hamas, as a source of much of the movement's funds. Iran has also been concerned to dispel the notion that it is intentionally stirring up civil strife throughout the Arab world--Hamas, although most of its members are Sunni, had started to be derided by its opponents as Shia.

The other main area of Saudi-Iranian-Syrian rivalry is Lebanon. In this arena, the stakes for Syria are the highest. It has long regarded Lebanon as its fiefdom, and has been working assiduously to retrieve its dominance after being forced to withdraw its troops in April 2005 in the face of a wave of Lebanese, Arab and international revulsion at the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister. Syria is now focusing its efforts on preventing the formation of an international tribunal for the Hariri assassination, to which end it is urging its Lebanese allies to bring down the government that was formed by Mr Hariri's political inheritors. Saudi Arabia, which is close to the Hariri camp, and Iran, which bankrolls and arms Hizbullah, have been seeking to broker a compromise. However, this could open the way to the Lebanese government approving the Hariri tribunal and to the election of a new president prepared to defy Syria. Faced with the prospect of being sidelined by a Saudi-Iranian deal based on these two states' common strategic interest in Gulf security, Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, headed for Tehran, where he received warm assurances of the continued strength of the Syrian-Iranian alliance. However, a more difficult challenge lies in store for Mr Assad at next month's Arab summit conference in Riyadh--assuming that he decides to attend.

The Economist Intelligence Unit
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