Iranian hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz have reportedly agreed to stem increasing rift between Sunni and Shia Muslims that is dragging West Asia into crisis.
As has been reported earlier, Jordan King Abdullah had warned of the possibility of three civil wars in the region-Palestine Territories, Lebanon, and Iraq. Tehran is the main supporter of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine Territories, and is also accused of supporting Shia groups in Iraq. Iran denies all these charges but their denials have few takers in the Sunni and Western world. The situation in Iraq was getting to a stage where Riyadh had indicated overt support to Sunni insurgents if the United States should withdraw prematurely and put the Sunni minority in danger.
There is also growing realization in the Muslim world that the unhealthy Sunni-Shia rift is compromising the Palestinian position with Israel. After all, the Sunni President Mahmoud Abbas was facing counter-productive opposition from Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. In a major compromise, Tehran is now supporting the Saudi-brokered Makkah Agreement between the two sides to form a unity government but disavowed by the Western world.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have been discussing these issues through National Security Council Chief Ali Larijani and his Saudi counterpart, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. While initial conversation between Larijani and Bandar focused on Lebanon, their successes encouraged the expansion of their discussions to include Palestine Territories and Iraq. Interestingly, Washington has not opposed the dialogue between the two nations and Bandar seems to have been in constant touch U.S. National Security Council West Asia Director Elliot Abrams on the progress of this dialogue.
However, Riyadh's and Washington's interests may have parted with the outcome of the Makkah Agreement where the Fattah Party and Hamas agreed to form a national unity government but have not necessitated Hamas's acceptance of non-violence, prior accords, and accepting Israel's right to live. Already, Western governments and Israel have denounced this Agreement on these grounds.
Another wildcard entry into the West Asian scene is the rising Russian activity. Much to the chagrin of Washington, Moscow has hosted Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal for the second time in a year. However, it appears that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's interaction with Meshaal seems to have achieved one important positive outcome. Hamas has now promised to end missile attacks and violence against Israel and also agreed to recognize Abbas as the leader who will negotiate a settlement deal with Israel. While the implementation of this promise needs to be verified, Lavrov was more bullish about "lifting" economic sanctions "against the Palestinians." Rightfully claiming success over its policy to "actively work" with Hamas, Lavrov said that his nation's objective is to "influence their position so that it evolve (sic) towards the all-Arab position as formulated by the Arab League and endorsed by the U.N. Security Council."
Russian President Vladimir Putin also strongly endorsed the Makkah power-sharing agreement during his visit to Saudi Arabia. His nation's position, as articulated by Lavrov, is to ensure that the peace process between Israel and Palestine is "irreversible" but also reiterate the position of the quartet (United Nations, United States, and European Union, and Russia,) asking Hamas to recognize Israel.
Over the last one year, Moscow has also cleverly expanded its ties with other parties in the region from both Sunni and Shia worlds. It hosted Abbas, Organization of Islamic Conference officials, Lebanese President, Syrian President, Arab League officials, Jordan King, Egyptian President, and Israel's Prime Minister. Interestingly, Israel's hard-line Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman was in Moscow during Meshaal's visit. While he called Moscow's engagement with Hamas a "big mistake" he also said he was return "feeling more optimistic."
Even the U.S. position on Iran and Syria seem to be changing. Seeing the emerging consensus between Sunni and Shia position, weary of the ongoing war of attrition in Iraq, and worried about increased Russian and Chinese engagement and expansion of influence, Washington has invited Iran and Syria to a conference on Iraq. Of course, the change in the political landscape in the U.S., the widespread acceptance of the Iraq Study Group, a non-binding resolution in the US Congress demanding peaceful negotiated settlement with Iran, and a near mutiny among many senior military officials threatening resignation if military action against Iran was ordered have prodded a rethink in the George Bush Administration.
Larijani acknowledged the invitation but was guarded about Tehran's response only to say that his nation is "reviewing the proposal" but also said that his nation is for "solving problems in Iraq by all means" including attending "the conference if it is expedient." Ostensibly, the ruling regime in Iraq is inviting Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Kuwait, apart from Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, and the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) but it is widely accepted that it cannot do so without adequate authorization from Washington which is scheduled to take place mid-March. Syria has already accepted the invitation and said that its interests will be represented by adviser to the Syrian Foreign Minister Ahmed Arnous. Washington has not made it a secret that its officials will not be averse to having sidebar conversations with Iranian and Syrian delegates.
Despite this invitation, the Bush Administration has not reduced its accusations of interfering by Iran and Syria in the running insurgencies in Iraq including supply of deadly weapons, providing sanctuary to anti-Iraq government rebels, and cross border weapons movement. However, it turns out, the very fact that the U.S. is willing to talk to Iran and Syria is a very fortunate event.