King Abdullah invited Iran’s President to Mecca. So What?

The extraordinary summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is now over and Syria’s membership has been suspended after two days of deliberations in Mecca. The move is purely symbolic. But—when combined with the Arab League’s suspension of Syria in November—it does reflect poorly on Iran, Russia, and China, three countries that have defended Assad even though regional and spiritual institutions are shunning him. Perhaps because the meeting lacked substance, commentators and news outlets were willing to overstate the importance of President Ahmadinejad’s attendance at the summit. (See also this misleading headline about “mending ties.”)

His trip and mere invitation was seen by many as a signal that Saudi Arabia was willing to dial down tensions. Few seemed ready, however, to acknowledge that both countries adhere to certain principles of “professional courtesy,” even when they are locked in a Cold War-style competition for influence in the Middle East. The rivalry has not subsided just because Ahmadinejad was photographed alongside King Abdullah. The bottom line is a simple one: as host of the extraordinary OIC summit, King Abdullah was obligated to invite all members—excluding Syria, since it was part of the agenda.

King Abdullah and President Ahmadinejad at the OIC summit (Al Arabiya)

If we are going to inflate the importance of Ahmadinejad’s trip then we must also concede that his office is weaker than ever. No one should assume that he has the ability to renew ties in the first place. Over the past year, the Supreme Leader has marginalized him, even threatening the presidency itself—not just the president; the majles is stacked with conservatives that hate him; and he is now being criticized at home for traveling abroad days after earthquakes killed more than 300 in Iran.

“Professional courtesy” captures the essence of the Saudi-Iranian relationship. While both sides work to undermine the other behind the scenes, neither is willing to embarrass their counterpart or escalate tensions in person or on an international stage. Indeed, courtesy is the norm even in times of outrage. Last year, for instance, when the U.S. Justice Department announced that Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington was the subject of an Iranian-led assassination plot, the Saudis went to the UN and called on Iran to cooperate with the investigation.

President Ahmadinejad only reinforced this habit of “professional courtesy” during his recent trip. According to President Abdullah Gul, who represented Turkey at the OIC summit, Iran’s outspoken president avoided any undue attention at the two-day meeting. Instead of criticizing the Saudis or Qataris for supporting Syrian rebels, he stayed quiet. Turkey’s state-run news agency quoted Gul, who said Ahmadinejad never mentioned the Syrian crisis, or offered prescriptions for resolving it. (Note: OIC meeting transcripts are unavailable.)

Ahmadinejad denied this when he arrived at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport following Syria’s suspension at the OIC. According to Iran’s IRNA news agency, Ahmadinejad said Iran’s “position was clearly and properly explained.” Why Gul would lie is a mystery; Ahmadinejad’s silence makes more sense, considering that Syria’s suspension was predetermined before the summit and showmanship would not affect the end result. (I say this because the Saudi-sponsored UN General Assembly resolution which condemned Syria on August 3 was backed by two-thirds of the OIC. The remaining members were absent or abstained so it was clear Saudi Arabia could collect enough votes in Mecca to suspend the regime. Only Syria and Iran voted against the UN resolution, while Syria was unable to vote at the OIC yesterday. It was reported that only Algeria and Iran voted against the suspension.)

In his remarks at the airport yesterday, Ahmadinejad also emphasized the importance of Saudi-Iranian relations. “It is very important to regulate the Iran-Saudi Arabia relations, which have always had a significant influence over regional developments,” Ahmadinejad told IRNA. “I hope that some important events will take place in the relations of the two countries in the future.” But quotes carried by Mehr News took a harder edge, balancing Ahmadinejad’s positive statements with criticism of Arab monarchs. In a meeting on the sidelines of the OIC summit, Ahmadinejad told reporters that he said, “I was surprised that some countries’ kings talked against Syria while the majority of people in their countries do not want them [in power].”

Comments made by Ahmadinejad at the Mecca summit (and quoted by Iranian media) are generally cautious. They do not insult any country specifically—especially not his Saudi hosts—but instead warn against intervening in other countries’ affairs. “Today, all of us have entered into a [conspiratorial] plan without realizing it, a plan that has been devised by the enemy [i.e. the U.S. and Israel]. We are showing hostility toward each other [i.e. fellow Muslims] without any clear reason and perhaps based on false information [i.e. Western propaganda] and under various personal, ethnic, historical, and even religious pretexts,” Ahmadinejad complained.

The gap between what Ahmadinejad said at the summit and what he said after returning to Tehran is clear. What the Kingdom and Islamic Republic are unwilling to say to each other directly, they will say to reporters and a domestic audience at more convenient times. They will not, however, breach that code of conduct which I refer to as “professional courtesy.” And with good reason: their neighborhood is small; proximity gives them no option but to do at least some business, especially since Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s two holiest sites.

Consider also the last time Ahmadinejad visited Saudi Arabia. In 2007, he was received by King Abdullah at the airport, with the explicit goal of curbing sectarian tension which was then out of control in Iraq and Lebanon. The meeting failed by its own measure. And to this day, both sides continue to play favorites as they jockey for advantage in a region suffering from widespread unrest. The 2007 trip was more important because it was a bilateral meeting between two heads of state and dedicated to one issue. But it did not change either country’s strategic interests or senses of vulnerability.

This week’s trip was no different. Ahmadinejad’s attendance, even his presence at King Abdullah’s side, does not make the competition any less severe. Pressed to explain Ahmadinejad’s seat beside the King, I agree that it was clearly a “good will gesture.” But it was offered by a monarch who has seen Iran’s standing decline recently, his own country remain largely stable, and revolutionary governments accept billions of dollars in Saudi largesse while Assad—Iran’s key ally—stares into the abyss. Could it be that the Kingdom feels that the Arab uprisings have empowered Saudi Arabia? Might Iran’s weakness be reason enough to sit down with the country’s president, if indeed Riyadh believes it is in a position of strength?

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