Just as a 150-strong Saudi delegation, headed by the kingdom’s minister for industries, Dr Hashem Abdullah Yamani, was about to arrive in Tehran last month, the US announced that it had fresh evidence of Iranian involvement in the Khobar bombings in June 1996. The claim was clearly intended to poison the atmosphere so relations between the two key regional players would not improve.
Tehran reacted swiftly to the allegations, which came after it had rejected a request from US president Bill Clinton, in a secret letter, for help to apprehend those responsible for the Khobar bombing. Tehran’s response was forthright: the Saudi government’s inquiry had found no evidence of Iran’s involvement. This, Tehran said, was an internal matter of Saudi Arabia’s in which Iran would not interfere. If Washington had any concerns, it must direct them to Riyadh. In the event, the US ploy backfired, as the allegation failed to disrupt the Saudis’ visit to Iran.
The US has been trying to sneak back into the lucrative Iranian market after 20 years of absence, even though it has neither improved its manners, nor given up spreading false propaganda against the Islamic State. That is one major reason that it continues to be called the ‘Great Satan’ in Iran; the name given it by the late Imam Khomeini is still as true today as it was 20 years ago.
A casual observer may be forgiven for believing that there is a Saudi invasion of Tehran underway these days. Saudis, conspicuous in their checkered headgear and long flowing robes, are now a familiar sight in Tehran hotels. Kuwaitis and Bahrainis are also visiting in large numbers. Nor is the traffic entirely one way; Iranians are also visiting neighbouring countries and opening channels for trade and investment.
This would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, and is indicative of the new realities in the region. Over the last two years, Saudi Arabia and Iran, the region’s key powers, have made a determined effort to work towards improving trade relations. The immediate effect of this has been in the vastly improved oil prices, currently at around US$20 per barrel. In February, the price dropped below $10 and appeared to be sliding further.
According to Iran’s commerce minister, Mohammed Shariatmadari, trade between the two countries is currently worth $180 million a year, and has great potential for expansion. A number of barriers, however, still have to be overcome, not the least of which is psychological. The Saudi delegation’s visit last month achieved a number of objectives. Several deals were signed which will help revive ailing industries and mines in Iran. Iran also hopes to increase its exports of construction materials ï such as tiles, cement, and steel etc ï to Saudi Arabia, as well as exporting fresh fruits and vegetables.
Shabanali Baradaran, managing director for Construction Equipment and Materials Industries Group (CEMIG), who visited Saudi Arabia in May, is of the opinion that Iranian goods can find a ready market in the kingdom. He also says that in the first six months of the last financial year (which ended on March 21), CEMIG achieved an export growth of 178 percent. He feels that Iran has great potential in the non-oil sector and is capable of competing with the best products from the west, because of its low production costs. He warned, however, against various ministries putting barriers in the way of exports.
The thaw in Iranian-Saudi relations began soon after a meeting between the then-president Hashemi Rafsanjani and Saudi crown prince, Abdullah, in Islamabad in March 1997, during the summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) convened for the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of Pakistan’s independence. In December 1997, prince Abdullah visited Tehran for the OIC summit there, and had a number of meetings with president Mohammed Khatami covering everything from political relations and trade to Hajj. In February 1998, Hashemi Rafsanjani, now head of Iran’s Expediency Council, visited Riyadh and cemented relations further.
Perhaps the most dynamic factor in improving relations is the Iranian ambassador to Riyadh, Hujjatul-Islam Nouri Shahroudi. An extremely gifted man of refined tastes, Shahroudi has been instrumental in the breaking down of barriers and establishment of commercial links, and is credited with engineering the oil price rise which could not have come about without Iranian-Saudi cooperation.
Beyond commercial links, however, there are significant ideological differences between the two. But there are also points of agreement. Both see the regime of Saddam Husain as a major destabilising factor in the region. The Saudis have made a U-turn in their attitude to Baghdad. Throughout the eighties, Saudi Arabia sponsored Saddam’s megalomaniac ambitions and war against the Islamic Republic of Iran; in the nineties the situation changed dramatically, and Riyadh has become the principal financier for the US’s war on Iraq.
Saudi Arabia now views Iran as a counterbalancing power to Saddam’s regime. Not all members of the ruling Saudi dynasty put their faith in the US which they view as being only interested in their wealth, which has shrunk over the last 20 years, thanks largely to the greed of Uncle Sam. The Zionists’ occupation of Palestine and Washington’s blind support for them are other factors on which Tehran and Riyadh can find common ground.
Following the Saudi lead, other Persian Gulf monarchies have also warmed to Iran, with the exception of the United Arab Emirates because of its three islands dispute with Iran. The changed political and security environment has gradually eliminated the US’s excuses for interfering in the region. Its departure, however, will take much longer because Uncle Sam is not there to protect anyone; his primary interest is in plundering others’ resources.
Muslimedia: November 1-15, 1999