RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – U.S. ally Saudi Arabia and Iran are working together to try to calm the crises in Iraq and Lebanon, the Saudi foreign minister said Tuesday, despite Washington's efforts to isolate Tehran and stem its power in the Middle East.
The mediation is an unusual step by two rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran, that have been competing for influence in the region. Mainly Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia has been increasingly vocal about its suspicions of mainly Shiite Iran's intentions.
U.S. President George W. Bush has rejected calls that the United States reach out to Iran to win its help in easing Iraq's bloodshed and resolve the political crisis in Lebanon that erupted into violence last week. Instead, he has taken a confrontational approach, vowing to break what he called Iranian support for militants in both countries.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said Tuesday that Iran had apprached his country to "cooperate in averting strife between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq and Lebanon."
"Saudi Arabia wants only peace in the region," al-Faisal said. "Contacts are ongoing between Riyadh and Tehran."
A Saudi envoy is in Iran studying all the efforts being exerted to calm the situation and defuse the crises in Iraq and Lebanon" and "exploring what Iran can contribute," he said. "The initiative will not succeed unless it is followed by action on the ground."
The deputy leader of Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement visited Saudi Arabia in late December and met King Abdullah and al-Faisal. The next month, Iran's top national security official, Ali Larijani, also met with the Saudi monarch.
At the time, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he had sent a message to Abdullah offering cooperation and that the Saudi response had been "positive."
The Shiite Muslim Hezbollah — which Iran is believed to support with money and weapons — has been waging a campaign of street protests for the past two months in an attempt to bring down the Western-backed government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. Last week, the protests erupted into clashes between supporters of the two sides that raised fears in Lebanon and across the Middle East that the country could explode into a sectarian civil war between its Shiites and Sunnis.
Saudi Arabia has close ties to Sunni politicians in the government's ruling coalition and has strongly backed Saniora.
Hezbollah has demanded the formation of a new national unity government that would give it and its allies more than a third of the Cabinet seats, enabling them to veto major decisions. Weeks of talks between the government and opposition have stalemated.
In Iraq, Iran is believed to back Shiite militias that have been blamed in killings of Sunni Arabs and it has close ties to Shiite parties that dominate the government. Saudi Arabia has strong tribal links to Iraq's Sunni Arab minority.
Saudi Arabia's willingness to work with Iran likely indicates the growing alarm in the kingdom's leadership over the two simultaneous crises, which have inflamed Sunni-Shiite tensions throughout the Middle East.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia has given tepid support to a new U.S. strategy in Iraq but has expressed skepticism over whether it will succeed. Besides sending 21,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq, the new strategy takes a tougher stance on Iran.
In a rare interview last week, King Abdullah attempted to calm Sunni worries over what some Sunnis have branded a Shiite threat and growing Iranian influence. He addressed rumors rampant in the mainly Sunni Arab world that Iran was backing efforts to convert Sunnis to Shiism.
"We are following up on this matter and we are aware of the dimensions of spreading Shiism and where it has reached," Abdullah told the Kuwaiti Al-Siyassah daily. "The majority of Sunni Muslims will never change their faith."