'Iran should stay out of Arab disputes'

Saudi FM calls for "mutual respect" between nations; Iranian FM arrives in Riyadh for surprise visit.

assad mubarak bff 248 88 ap (photo credit: )
assad mubarak bff 248 88 ap
(photo credit: )
Iran's top diplomat made a surprise visit to Saudi Arabia on Sunday in an attempt to improve bilateral relations amid rising tensions between the Islamic Republic and the Arab world. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was met by his Saudi counterpart, Prince Saud al-Faisal, at Riyadh Air Force Base and was expected to meet with the Saudi monarch. At a news conference Faisal called for "mutual respect" between his nation and Iran. But Faisal urged Iran to stay out of internal Arab disputes, in particular in Lebanon and among the Palestinians. "Although we appreciate the Iranian concern in Arab issues, from our point of view, this should be conducted through the legitimate Arab doorways." The visit comes after Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria held a mini-summit in Riyadh last week to patch up their differences, which largely revolve around the role of Iran in the region. Syria is Iran's closest Arab ally, something Saudi Arabia and Egypt would like to change. Western-backed Saudi Arabia has long been suspicious of the Iranians, and particularly the country's intentions to gain a strong foothold in Iraq, Abdel Monem Said Aly, director of the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told The Jerusalem Post. As the US plans to scale back its presence in the country and as there is a now a strong Iranian presence in Iraq itself, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab countries are concerned about the stability of Iraq. In addition, Lebanon faces an important parliamentary election in June and Iranian-backed Hizbullah is both heavily armed and very influential there. As a result, there are questions as to whether the elections will reflect "a balance of power" or "a balance of votes," Said Aly said. Hizbullah, he said, is engaging in a lot of intimidation and blackmail to earn votes, he added. Finally, Iran, which has supported Hamas militarily and financially, has been capitalizing on the Palestinian issue, and its support of the Islamist movement constitutes challenges to Palestinian reconciliation that need to be resolved, Said Aly said. But unlike Egypt, Saudi Arabia has full diplomatic relations with Iran and doesn't mind keeping the lines of communication open between the two countries, he said. High-level visits between the two countries are not unusual and Saudi Arabia has even invited Ahmadinejad to visit on a pilgrimage, he added. At least one Israeli expert was skeptical that the Sunday meeting heralded a new era in Arab-Iranian relations. "Saudi Arabia and Iran have been pitted against one another as rivals in the Arab and Islamic world and it's doubtful that one visit is going to erase years of mutual hostility," Dore Gold, the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a senior adviser to Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu, told the Post on Sunday. "At the same time, Saudi Arabia has to take into account a new US policy of engagement of Iran and therefore must make compensatory diplomatic moves to protect its vital interests," he said. "They may feel compelled to engage Iran if they assume that their American protectorate is engaging Iran." Said Aly said that the surprise visit was likely part of an Iranian campaign to calm fears in Arab countries. Tensions escalated when an Iranian official was quoted as saying last month that Bahrain was the 14th province of Iran until 1970 - a statement Bahrain officials considered to be an "infringement of sovereignty." Although the statement was denied as representing official Iranian views, Arab countries considered the statement to be a reflection of Iranian ambitions in the region. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made it a point in recent weeks to stress Muslim unity and the importance of Arab-Iranian relations, Said Aly said. The Iranians hope to assuage fears in the Arab world, at least in part, "to pave the way for whatever kind of dialogue they will have with the United States later on," he said. "If Iran wants to be a regional power, it wants to appear responsible." Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit accused Iran on last week of "manipulating" Arab states to increase its influence and Saudi Arabia has called for a "unified Arab" approach to Iran. Iran, however, remains anathema to US-allied Arab states. The Saudi-owned TV station Al-Arabiya reported Sunday that three unidentified Gulf states have informed Qatar that they would send only low-level officials to the annual Arab League summit March 30 if Iran was invited. Sudan's embattled president, Omar al-Bashir, meanwhile, has accepted an invitation to attend the summit, the Sudanese press has reported. During his meeting Saturday evening with Bashir, Qatar's State Minister Hamad bin Nasser al-Thani invited him to attend the March 30 summit, as well as a Latin American summit to be held in Doha, Sudan's official news agency SUNA reported on Saturday. Sudanese Foreign Affairs Minister Ali Karti told reporters after the meeting "that it is well known that Bashir will take part in these two summits," according to a Sunday article in the Sudan Tribune. Karti also reportedly praised Qatar's supportive stance towards Sudan. But prosecutors have warned that due to the international arrest warrant issued against him earlier this month, Bashir risks potential arrest by traveling outside Sudan. The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant against Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, making him the first sitting head of state the court has ordered arrested. Qatar is not a signatory to the ICC's Rome Statute which created the court and thus may not consider itself obligated to executing the warrant. But an ICC spokeswoman told AFP Saturday that although the tribunal does not have its own police force, it does count on the cooperation of states and therefore of Qatar. "Qatar is not a state member of the Rome Statute, the founding text of the ICC, but it is a member of the United Nations," ICC spokeswoman Laurence Blairon told AFP. "The [UN] Security Council resolution that requires all states to cooperate with the court therefore applies to Qatar." The ICC's decision to issue a warrant against Bashir was criticized by Arab officials in several countries. An editorial in the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram newspaper dated March 6 stated that the decision "is a dangerous precedent because this is the first time that an arrest warrant is issued against a presiding president of a sovereign country like Sudan," according to a report by the Middle East Media and Research Institute.