Is Iran-Saudi Détente Underway?

Wall Street Journal Europe May 20, 1999

by KennethR. Timmerman
Click here to readbiographical information

 [Mr. Timmerman is a contributing editor for Reader'sDigest, and publishes a monthly newsletter, The Iran Brief.]


The visit of Iranian president Mohammad Khatami to Saudi Arabiathis week is a clear sign that relations between the two Persian Gulfgiants have begun to thaw, after nearly two decades of often bloodyhostility. It is also the first appreciable sign that PresidentKhatami, a reformist cleric, has begun to take control of Iran'sforeign policy from hard-liners loyal to Supreme Leader AyatollahKhamene'i.

President Khatami has made it clear he intends to end Iranianattempts to subvert the regimes of his Arab gulf allies, efforts thatbegan almost immediately after Islamic revolutionaries seized controlof the government in Tehran in February 1979. But he has made itequally clear that under his stewardship, Iran will continue tosupport anti-Israeli guerrillas in Lebanon and to oppose the MiddleEast peace process, efforts which are top on the list of Iranianbehavior to which the U.S. objects.

Just before arriving in Saudi Arabia last Saturday (May 15),President Khatami was in Syria, where he met with the leader of theLebanese Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. After the meeting, Mr.Khatami told reporters that in his view Hezbollah was an "ideologicaland humanitarian movement" that was trying to liberate Lebaneseterritory from Israeli occupation, and was thus worthy of Iran'ssupport. Hezbollah guerrillas fired katyusha rockets into northernIsrael to "celebrate" Israel's election two days later.

Radical Groups

Also while in Syria, President Khatami pledged Iran's support toHamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which reject the peace processand have carried out numerous bloody terrorist attacks on Israelisoil. The Iranian parliament reauthorized President Khatami's $100million annual budget to support radical groups opposed to the peaceprocess earlier this year.

But the Islamic Republic's opposition to the peace process is ofless concern to Saudi Arabia than Tehran's long-standing support forIslamic radicals seeking to overthrow the desert monarchy and todestabilize neighbors such as Bahrain. And on this front, Saudidiplomats say, there has been a marked improvement in Iran's behaviorin the nearly two years since President Khatami took office.

While the Saudis remain cautious, fully aware of the powerstruggle currently underway in Tehran, a senior Saudi diplomat toldme Riyadh for the first time has "real hope" that President Khatamiwill succeed in consolidating power and thus bring about betterrelations between the Gulf states and the Islamic Republic.

Among the positive trends identified by the diplomat:

- an apparent cessation of Iranian government assassination teamsoperating overseas (with the exception of hits against theMujahedin-e Khalq, a radical opposition group operating from basesinside Iraq);

- a major drop in Iran's support for violation opposition groupsin the Gulf, in particular in Bahrain, where the diplomat noted "nobombs have gone off" since President Khatami took office;

- a drop in the recruitment and training of Gulf state nationalsby the Iranian intelligence services, and a concomitant drop in thenumber of clandestine visits by Iranian intelligence operatives toArab Gulf countries;

- a decrease in the number of Iranian challenges to maritimetraffic in the Gulf;

- a "distinct" cooling off of anti-Saudi rhetoric from Tehran;

- the absence of violent anti-Saudi or anti-Western demonstrationsat this year's annual pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, despite callsby Supreme Leader Ali Khamene'i in February that pilgrims stage theannual "disavowal of infidels" rally. In the past, this rally hasdegenerated into a raucous denunciation of the U.S., Israel, andSaudi Arabia. This year, the rally was quietly canceled.

"It's clear that their tone has changed," the diplomat said. "Thequestion is, is it permanent, or just temporary? If this is due toKhatami, has he consolidated power? We don't think so. So we are notin a hurry. But we will continue to build links to Iran slowly."

In March, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to OPEC-wide oil productioncuts - a move that Saudi Arabia has resisted in the past - thatrescued oil prices from historic lows. President Khatami was supposedto meet with King Fahd in Riyadh to seal the pact later that month,but was forced to cancel the trip when hard-liners back in Tehranobjected. On April 30, Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan binAbdulaziz traveled to Tehran for extensive talks with Khatami andother regime officials, a trip which Iranian defense minister AliShamkhani called a "turning point" in their relations. Prince Sultanresponded coolly, however, to an Iranian proposal that the twooil-producing giants form a military alliance. Economic, cultural andsocial relations "should take precedence," he said, pointing out thatmilitary cooperation between the two "is not a simple matter."

The Saudis accorded President Khatami extraordinary honors,allowing him to perform the hajj and to visit Shiite Muslimcommunities in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, where Iranian-backedIslamic extremists bombed the Al Khobar Towers military barracksoutside of Dhahran in June 1996, killing 18 U.S. airmen.

Saudi officials say there is "no doubt or ambiguity" that Iranordered the bombing, trained the bombers, and gave them refuge inIran after the attack. However, until now the United States hasrefused to publicly accept the Saudi conclusion of Iran's directresponsibility for the attack.

A dragnet of Shiite activists in Saudi Arabia's Eastern provinceshortly after the June 1996 bombing netted hundreds of young men whohad been trained in Iran, 40 of whom remain in Saudi jails. Underinterrogation, they identified their ringleader as Ahmad Mughassil, aSaudi Shiite trained in Iran. Mughassil's name first surfacedpublicly when a 21-year old Saudi Shiite, Hani Abdel Rahim Sayegh,was arrested in Canada in late 1996. Sayegh gave details of the bombplot to the Canadians in hopes of obtaining political asylum.

A Saudi official familiar with the case said Mughassil is the headof the Saudi branch of Hezbollah, and fled to Iran along with a halfdozen followers within hours of the Dhahran bombing. "We know whothey are, we know where they are, and we want them back," theofficial said. "We've told the Iranians this, but they continue todeny they are in Iran."

The Saudi Hezbollah team that carried out the bombing wasrecruited in Saudi Arabia by Iranian intelligence officers, theofficial said. They traveled to Syria on their Saudi passports, thenjoined an Iranian Revolutionary Guard base in Lebanon's Bekaa Valleywhere they were given Iranian passports. Returning to Damascus on theIranian passports, they were flown to Iran for explosives andcounterintelligence training. Then they returned to Syria, picked uptheir Saudi passports, and re-entered Saudi Arabia, without the Saudiauthorities ever suspecting they had been to Iran. The explosivesexpert who crafted the Khobar Towers bomb is Lebanese, and fled SaudiArabia to Iran along with Mughassil.

The United States, however, has been reluctant to accept evidenceof Iran's involvement, no doubt because once it does, it may have toact, and moving against Iran at this point would undermine Mr.Khatami. For Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states who have been onthe receiving end of Iranian state-sponsored terrorism, the proofthat President Khatami is sincere in his efforts to improve relationswith them will only come when Iran surrenders the terrorist suspectsit continues to harbor.

[A slightly abridged text of this article appeared in the U.S.edition of the Wall STreet Journal on May 26, 1999, under the title:The Saudi-Iranian Thaw."]