Old foes Saudi Arabia, Iran seek common ground in Bahrain talks

Saudi Arabia and Iran are sworn enemies, but a recent panel discussion in Bahrain explored how the two Middle East rivals could find common ground.

Talks at the International Institute of Strategic Studies' annual security summit in Manama focused partly on the two regional powers, especially in light of recent negotiations Iran held with the U.S. over its nuclear program.


"The GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries are neighbors and we are condemned to live together forever," said former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian. "We need to practice how to live in peace."

His word choice drew a gentle objection from one Saudi representative.

"I would disagree with him in calling this need to live together 'condemned to live together,'" said Prince Turki Al Faisal Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, of the King Faisal Center for for Research and Islamic Studies. "I would prefer to use the words 'blessed to live together.'"

Prince Turki, who served as the Kingdom's Ambassador to both the U.S. and United Kingdom, as well as director general of Saudi Intelligence, said he has seen a change in Iran's tone toward its adversaries.

"I see spokespeople from Iran have dropped the Cold War rhetoric they had before," he said. "We no longer hear about 'Big Satan.' We don't even hear about 'Little Satan.'"

But privately, numerous Arabs from this region said they are not happy at all about Iran's charm offensive, and the thawing in its relations with the U.S. Some said it was a betrayal to learn that America was secretly negotiating with their enemy. They simply don't trust Iran and are more worried about its meddling in the region than they are about its nuclear ambitions.

But Mousavian, currently an associate research scholar at Princeton University, said Iran appears genuine in its desire to normalize relations with the west.

"Iran's goal in nuclear negotiations is not just the easing of sanctions," he said. "The main objective is détente with the region and the West."

The fruit of those negotiations, by way of the interim deal struck in Geneva, continues to be controversial, with some members of the U.S. Congress, as well as Israelis and Gulf Arabs, doubting it can sufficiently stall Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Gary Samore, former White House non-proliferation adviser, and now of Harvard University's Belfer Center, said President Obama felt he had to make use of the moment when the Iranians, reeling under Western sanctions, finally came to the table. But he said keeping Iran honest on its end of the bargain is crucial.

"If Iran believes sanctions will fade away on their own, it has no incentive to make any additional concessions," Samore said. "If they can get it for free, why pay for it?"

Prince Turki, while welcoming moves to curb Iran's nuclear program, has long been pushing for a region completely devoid of weapons of mass destruction, including within Israel. He believes the 10 years spent wrestling exclusively with Iran might have been better spent in a more comprehensive undertaking to ensure the entire region was made clear of nuclear weapons.

Mousavian appeared to speak for many Iranians when he said it was unfair to demand that Iran forego nuclear weapons capabilities, but not do the same for Israel. Samore said prior U.S. administrations tried unsuccessfully to keep Israel from becoming a nuclear power.

"In government, you have to make choices about what you can do," Samore said. "You have limited resources, limited time, and you face a whole range of difficult issues."

Samore added that Israel has said it is willing to join the non-proliferation treaty and will accept a nuclear weapons free zone in the region when the current conditions that threaten their security are changed.

"Secretary [of State John] Kerry is working hard to try to bring about a change in political circumstances so we can achieve a WMD free zone in the Middle East, but to expect we can convince Israel in the absence of changed political conditions-it's just not practical," Samore said.

As for the current deal with Iran, Samore said skepticism of Iran's intentions should not stop diplomats from trying to lower the threat.

"If it succeeds, it will be a remarkable diplomatic achievement that averts the excruciating choice between Iran with a bomb and bombing Iran," he said. "If it fails, the U.S. will be better able to justify to itself and the world that it needs to take other actions."