Possible Iran-Saudi deal on Syria prompts deep concern

Two of the most bitter rivals in the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia, are preparing to co-operate on lowering tensions in the region, particularly in Syria. On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia invited Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to visit Riyadh.

For the past three years, Iran and Saudi Arabia — the main Shia and Sunni powers — have backed opposing sides in the Syrian civil war. Tehran has supported President Bashar Assad through its proxy Hizbollah, and Riyadh has helped fund and arm the rebels.

But in recent weeks, there have been reports that the two sides have been trying to find ways to reduce the violence in which over 150,000 Syrians have been killed. The ceasefire achieved last week in the city of Homs is widely believed to be a result of this thaw in relations.

An Israeli intelligence official said this week that recent developments “could lead to a significant de-escalation in Syria, though probably not end the civil war entirely. The question is, who will emerge on top?” Israel is concerned that either possible outcome — a Syria controlled by Assad’s patrons Iran and Hizbollah, or by militant jihadist groups — could threaten Israel.

The Iranian-Saudi engagement highlights the continuing failure of the international community and the West to deal with the Syrian conflict. On Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius criticised the US and Britain for sticking to plans to attack Assad’s forces in response to the use of chemical weapons against citizens last August.

Another round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 world powers group has been taking place since Tuesday in Vienna with a view to reaching a deal curbing Iran’s nuclear development by the end of next month. While Iranian officials have said that progress has been achieved on changes to the nuclear reactor at Arak, Tehran is still refusing to include limits on its long-range ballistic missile programme.

Last updated: 8:45am, May 16 2014