ahmadi abdullah riyadh.
(photo credit: AP)
It would have been a sensitive visit in any case - a meeting between two of the most prominent figures in the Middle East today, who represent the Shi'ite and Sunni worlds - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz VI.
Everyone understood that this visit, which took place on Saturday, would have to be prepared carefully. Ahmadinejad's personal representative Ali Larijani visited Riyadh. Larijani is Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, and it was obvious that was the subject of the visit. Larijani was in Riyadh twice, and Saudi Arabia's third-ranking official, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, traveled to Teheran.
Bandar's father, Prince Sultan (the minister of defense), is next in line to the Saudi throne, as his half-brother Abdullah is already older than 85. Bandar maintains close ties with the Muhabarat (secret police), whose main function is protecting the country from terror (mainly Shi'ite), and is expected to succeed his father as king.
Iran worries the Saudis greatly, especially its nuclear potential, which is the number one problem on the agenda. Obviously, this visit was significant for the Saudis.
Saturday evening, Ahmadinejad landed to a king's welcome. Feasts were prepared for him. Abdullah meant to speak with him about everything, but first and foremost the nuclear issue. Because they don't share a common language (Ahmadinejad knows only Farsi), the conversation was conducted through an interpreter. Abdullah was obviously trying. He sat close to Ahmadinejad, something he doesn't often do with his guests, and tried to smile for the cameras before the meeting.
There are still no details on the conversation itself, but Abdullah apparently warned Ahmadinejad about the Americans, who are increasing their presence in the Persian Gulf. I believe that Abdullah offered to mediate between the Iranians and the Americans, and he has the ability to do so comparatively well. After the first round of talks, they left for dinner and later resumed talks.
Shortly before midnight, it was announced suddenly that Ahmadinejad was returning to Teheran. I believe the talks ended in acrimony, since it's strange for him not to have stayed at least a night on such an important visit - as is the custom in Arab lands.
The fact remains that Ahmadinejad and the Saudis did not voice any intention of continuing talks. Also, no official message was published, as is the norm. Ahmadinejad has a hot temper, and he tends to get offended. Maybe he thought that the Saudis were interfering in something that was none of their business.
As he returned to Iran, Ahmadinejad was met at Teheran airport by reporters. He told them that he had spoken with the Saudis on Iraq, the Sunni-Shi'ite issue, Lebanon and the Palestinians, and did not mention the nuclear program - an additional indication that this was the subject that had caused the crisis.
The Iranian president essentially spurned the Saudis' hand, extended in hopes of preventing a major crisis in the Gulf. The Saudis themselves are also afraid of such a crisis, with its many possible scenarios. Could their Shi'ites, 15 percent of the population, begin an uprising? Could Iran attack them? This is something that scares them.
Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, apparently has decided that it isn't yet time to let Iran off its crazy merry-go-round, and continues to defy the US and the West.
This week, the UN Security Council is supposed to decide on harsher sanctions against Iran's nuclear program, and the Americans continue to up their presence on Iran's borders and coast. The tension builds.
The writer is head of Middle Eastern Studies at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.