An interview with Hossein Sadeghi, Iran’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia : Hashemi’s Heavy Blow to Wall of Mistrust
Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia have had many ups and downs following the Revolution, to the extent that at one period the relations were close and at another time there were many challenges. But in this historic process, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have never led to the signing of any agreement in the cultural, economic and even security areas. Why has such an agreement never happened?
This question is raised by many that why the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, as two big regional or even international players or, cannot or have not yet been able to reach a comprehensive agreement; an agreement which, while comprehensive, would be sustainable and would not be affected by daily developments and could continue its path under any conditions. If we intend to divide the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia into different periods, it would be as follows; the first stage is the formation of the victory of the Islamic Revolution. As you know, before the Revolution, Iran and Saudi Arabia, based on their strategies, each played their roles in the line towards the security and stability of the Persian Gulf. But following the victory of the Islamic Revolution, a vacuum was created on the ground of how a sustainable security could be established in the region. The second stage was the beginning of the War. At this juncture, due to the existing issues, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia turned cold and the relations became critical. This situation continued until the acceptance of Resolution 598. The acceptance of this resolution was a new stage in the relations between the two countries. At that time, Iran was seriously damaged and needed reconstruction to repair the destructions caused by the war. At the same time there were tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia which should have been resolved. Thus, there were collaborations with Saudi Arabia as the country which has the biggest oil reserves to increase the price of oil.
At this juncture, Mr. Hashemi, who I believe is a pragmatic politician and makes his moves based on realities, made a bold decision as the president at the time which was, of course, protested against inside the country. Mr. Hashemi dealt a heavy blow to the wall of mistrust. He believed that instead of creating tensions, we must pursue détente, hence, everybody would benefit. The next stage was the era of Mr. Khatami’s presidency, which I call the “golden era’ in the relations between the two countries. It was the golden era of political, economic, cultural, social and even military relations between the two countries on the grounds which were provided during Mr. Hashemi’s presidency. Mr. Khatami not only continued this path but also accelerated it. Mr. Khatami’s visit to Saudi Arabia was the turning point in these relations and created a new perspective in this regard. Then there was the era of the ninth and tenth administrations; the era when the relations returned to the past. I can say that at this juncture a new crisis was created in our relations with Saudi Arabia. The next stage was the formation of the Arab uprisings or the Arab Spring in the region. The last stage is the era of Mr. Rohani’s presidency. The view of this administration towards the issue of foreign policy is completely different from that of the previous administrations. This administration intends to continue the path of Mr. Hashemi and Mr. Khatami while understanding the new realities. Considering the existing potentials in the two countries, I am optimistic that a new atmosphere could be created in the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
There are two viewpoints with regard to the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Some believe that Iran’s policy regarding Saudi Arabia is based on the policy of “accommodation” and the others state that it has been on the basis of the policy of “compromise”. What is your assessment of Iran’s policy with regard to Saudi Arabia?
I do not know where these interpretations originate from. In the political relations between the countries we have had a period of hostility. At this period, both parties feel that they must use every possibility against the other party. In the next stage hostility does not exist but there is tension or crisis. Then there is the period of détente, normalization and expansion of relations. I believe that the era of Mr. Hashemi and Mr. Khatami’s presidencies were the era of détente and normalization of relations and they even bypassed these stages and entered the phase of development and expansion of relations. The next phase is the period of strengthening and stabilizing the relations which we could not take any measure in this regard to reach a common understanding and a constructive and positive interaction so that we could enter an atmosphere of competition instead of conflict which could also be positive. Negative competition has its own consequences. There should be a spirit of positive and constructive interaction. If we take steps in this area, then both countries and the region will benefit from it and the grounds will be prepared for the regional cooperation of Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is under the shadow of these developments that the two countries could move in the stage of self-construction.
Some believe that the relations between the two countries must be considered in security cooperation and aside from diplomatic relations. Is there enough capacity for security cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia?
I believe that there are good grounds for this matter. If we enter the scene, the others will certainly encourage and help as well. Extremism and violence prevents sustainable development and growth. I think that one of the common points of cooperation between the two countries is radicalism. The second area is terrorism. Terrorism is an issue against which both countries could have constant cooperation, particularly these days when radicalism and terrorism have expanded in the region and the cooperation of Iran and Saudi Arabia could have positive effects. The third area of cooperation is the area of energy. Iran and Saudi Arabia, as big producing countries, could play vital and serious roles in this regard. The next stage is economic cooperation. I believe there are grounds for vast joint cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Right now, our relations have reached a point where the gates are closed but this does not mean that the gates should remain closed and locked forever. These locks can be opened so that we could enter a new atmosphere.
You said that both Iran and Saudi Arabia suffer from radicalism, but the developments in the region, particularly in Syria, showed that Saudi Arabia is a supporter of radical groups. It does not seem that Saudi Arabia is suffering from this issue, thus, how could radicalism be considered as an issue for security cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia?
Based on my experiences, violence and radicalism may sometimes lead to the formation of terrorism. This issue is like a fire which is lit in some place. I do not intend to enter the discussion of who enflamed this fire but what is important is that the flames of this fire which will cover everybody. Therefore, if the two countries pursue expanded cooperation, they will be able to extinguish this fire. If both sides feel determined in this regard, and today this feeling does exist in both countries, then they will show serious willingness to expand their relations. The conditions are not easy and simple. Iran and Saudi Arabia must sit down and begin a direct, serious, challenging and difficult negotiation without any mediator. One could hope that under such challenging dialogue, we could bypass this difficult stage and enter a new one.
When we say that a country is a regional power, this means that the country could balance several areas of power as a regional player. With this definition, could Saudi Arabia be considered as a regional power? Does Saudi Arabia have the capability to balance the powers?
I believe that no country could play this role alone, whether it is Iran, Saudi Arabia or any other country. We must reach a collective understanding and then we could present a new definition of regional collective power. Under these conditions, we might be able to prepare the grounds for the development and growth of the entire region. When there are unstable, underdeveloped and poor countries in a region, then poverty will naturally overflow into other countries. Therefore, if this cooperation exists, then measures could be taken to help those neighboring countries which are faced with crisis and poverty to reach growth and development and uproot radicalism and violence.
The point of conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia was Syria. Saudi Arabia’s emphasis on the downfall of the Assad government and Iran’s support of this regime led to challenges in the bilateral relations. What issue could cause Iran and Saudi Arabia to reconcile in Syria?
There is no other solution but to enter dialogue on this matter. If Saudi Arabia attempts to look at its own benefits in Syria or if Iran does the same for that matter, then it is natural that we will not be able to move in the path of dialogue. If both parties agree to enter serious talks and discuss their interests and find their common and different points of view, then they could find a solution. It is very unfortunate that people in Syria are being killed and the country is being destroyed. This crisis is not to any body’s benefit. With a realistic outlook we will comprehend that there is no solution but dialogue. It will be very difficult in the future to control radicalism which is forming in the region. Radicalism will overflow into other countries in the future and will have serious consequences.
Is the existing mistrust between Iran and Saudi Arabia rooted in sectarianism and the issue of the Shiites and the Sunnis?
I believe that this issue has impacted this mistrust but I do not think that this is the determining factor. Unfortunately ethnic and sectarian conflicts have expanded in the region. It is not limited to one country. In order to prevent these sectarian conflicts, Iran and Saudi Arabia could play key roles in this regard.
One of the very important events with regard to the issue of Syria is the US’ lack of support of Saudi Arabia and its pursuit of the dismissal of Bandar-bin-Sultan. What are the reasons behind the US’ change in approach, especially on the issue of Syria, and even the dismissal of Bandar which is said to have been done due to US pressure?
I believe that one of the concerns of the US or moderate countries in the region with regard to the developments in Syria is the growth of the Takfiri groups; those groups which take blind measures, have closed outlooks and do not believe in interaction, dialogue and tolerance. They do not see any other path but the path of violence. The moderate countries believe that if they take power, the region will be seriously threatened.
There seems to be closeness and a deepening of relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. What is the reason behind this closeness?
There are mutual needs. Saudi Arabia needs the potential possibilities which exist in Pakistan including the labor forces. Pakistan, on the other hand, needs Saudi Arabia’s financial possibilities. This need has brought the two sides closer to each other and deepened their relations.