Foreign Policy Blogs

Hajji Ahmadinejad

For the first time since the revolution of 1979, a sitting Iranian President has been invited to participate in the hajj.  King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia has extended an invitation to the head of his regional rival, a gesture one could think is the triumph of religion over politics, but, in reality, is just the opposite.

Saudi Arabia has long worried about Iran's Shi’ite revolution,  especially in light of an oil-rich Iran taking advantage of a weakened America to spread its regional influence.   So worried, in fact, that the House of Saud agreed to fund Sunni militants in Lebanon and Palestine to fight against their Iran-backed Shi’ite rivals.   This was chronicled by Seymour Hersh in a March New Yorker article.

But, it seems the National Intelligence Estimate has changed everything, or at least the perception of everything.   The ides that Iran is no longer actively engaged in the pursuit of nuclear weapons has given some breathing room to monarchs worried about regional confrontation.   It is hard to imagine Abdallah extending this invitation without the estimate.   This is not to say that the Gulf Arab states are no longer terrified of Iran.  Max Boot, just returning from a trip to the Gulf Region, reports thatsome of those most worried about the mullahs wear flowing headdresses, not yarmulkes, and they have good cause for concern, notwithstanding the sanguine tilt many news accounts put on the NIE.”

So, then: what?  If Saudi Arabia is still scared of Iran, and whose oil dollars are still the biggest obstacle to Iran's plans for regional dominance, why are they breaking bread together?  Because Middle Eastern politics are not as straightforward as one would like: enemies can work together for another goal.  The Middle Eastern Times reported that “Lebanese analysts expect that Ahmadinejad's Hajj pilgrimage this month will help the anti- and pro-Western politicians in Lebanon to come closer to electing a president and to formulate an agenda and lineup for a new cabinet”.  This confused me.  Saudi Arabia is still the biggest regional financial backer of  Saad Hariri's Future Party, and Iran is the sponsor of his two biggest foes, Syria and Hezbollah.   But the wild card is the al-Qaeda aligned militant groups in the Palestinian camps, notably Fatah al-Islam.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have goals in Lebanon (and the region) that oppose each other.   But in the chaotic and dangerous politics of Lebanon, the old cliche of your enemy's enemy being your friend holds true.  Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia want to see a revival of the Lebanese Civil War with al-Qaeda in the mix, a group over whom neither of them can wield much control.    So it seems they are willing to work together to put Michel Sulieman (or another acceptable candidate) in the President's office.   It may be true that Syria is still somewhere behind the assassination of Francois al-Hajj, but Iran and Hajji Ahmadinejad seem willing to rein in their weaker, still aggressive client.

This is, of course, speculation.  But when investigating Middle Eastern politics, one has to keep in mind the criss-crossing connections.

A short, brighter note on Iran: when we think of Iran we tend to think of mullahs and maybe some brave student groups.  But it is good to remember that Iran and its expat community are engaged in a vibrant debate.   I came across this site, Gozaar, dedicated to Iranian human rights.  Haven't gone through it all, but found a fascinating article on “positive nationalism” (like in Robert Reich's formulation, for example).   The author wants to “preserve positive nationalism as a moderate force and to incorporate democratic and secular values into it.”  It is an interesting look at Iranian identity, and, as in-depth as it is, seems almost relieving to trying to figure out the bizarre political machinations of current politics.



Brian O'Neill

Brian O'Neill is a freelance writer currently based out of Chicago. He has lived in Egypt and in Yemen, and worked as a writer and editor for the Yemen Observer publishing company. He currently is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.