Iran and Saudi Arabia are edging closer after nearly 20 years of acrimony - a move that threatens to undermine U.S. efforts to isolate Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah arrived Monday in Tehran for an important Islamic summit with delegates from more than 50 Muslim nations. His presence and an expected meeting with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami follow months of diplomatic maneuvering for rapprochement.
Those talks, though distracting attention from the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit, could mark a turning point in relations between the two most influential Islamic countries.
Saudi Arabia has been a close American ally for more than half a century - 5,000-plus U.S. troops are stationed in the kingdom - but a new Saudi warmth toward Iran could jeopardize those ties.
The United States has been seeking to isolate Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution toppled the U.S.-backed shah and led to 52 Americans being held hostage for more than a year.
Washington regards Iran as a sponsor of terrorism and has severely criticized its opposition to the Middle East peace process.
A Saudi-Iranian axis also would be regarded as a grave threat by Washington’s prime Middle East ally, Israel.
The Saudi kingdom is the world’s largest oil exporter and played host to the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Last year, however, the Saudis refused permission for U.S. planes based in Saudi Arabia to take part in an attack on Iraq. And last month, the Saudis joined most Arab states in boycotting a U.S.-backed economic conference in Qatar.
In Washington, State Department spokesman James Foley said he would have no official comment on the Islamic conference until after it ends. He added, however, that there is no significance to the fact that the Islamic summit is being better attended than the Qatar conference because the Organization of the Islamic Conference is a well-established institution.
Another State Department official who spoke in Washington on condition of anonymity said it is not surprising that the Saudis and the Iranians, as neighbors, are talking to each other.
The catalyst for a change in Saudi policy toward Iran was last year’s powerful explosion at a U.S. military barracks in the city of Dhahran in eastern Saudi Arabia.
It served as a stunning indication of the depth of internal opposition to the kingdom’s close ties with the United States. The Saudis have annoyed Washington by not fully cooperating in the investigation.
Iran’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia said the Saudi crown prince’s visit goes beyond just attending the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which begins today.
“Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia are good and getting even better,” Mohammad Reza Shahroudi told The Associated Press in Tehran.