To say that there are a lot of moving pieces in the Middle East these days is certainly an understatement.
From Libya to Yemen, Gaza to Iraq, outside powers are intervening in complex confrontations that pit religious fundamentalists against secularists, dictators against democrats and ethnic minorities against each other.
This week, however, there was a crucial step toward mitigating one corrosive rivalry that has fueled much of the carnage: senior Iranian and Saudi officials met for the first time since the election last year of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian described his talkswith Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal in Jeddah as "positive and constructive."
"Both sides emphasized the need to open a new page of political relations between the two countries," Abdollahian told the Reuters news agency.
The main topic of discussion was the shocking advance of the Islamic State group deep into Iraq and close to the borders of both Iran and Saudi Arabia. As a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted recently, “This is a tremendous threat to everybody, and it is really sharpening the minds.”
The fact that the Iranians and Saudis are talking again does not guarantee a breakthrough against Islamic State fighters, but could make it easier to build a broad coalition against the group and facilitate efforts to form a more inclusive government in Iraq and potentially, Syria.
Should it choose to do so, the U.S. can now engage Iran - a key backer of the Shi'ite-led government in Iraq and the Alawite regime in Syria - without infuriating the Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf. In the past, the U.S. declined to include Iran in negotiations over a political settlement in Syria, in part because the Saudis refused to sit at the same table with Tehran.
Balking at sending an ambassador to Baghdad and funneling funds to Sunni rebels in Syria, the Saudis have portrayed their policies as a principled stand against Iranian expansionism and in defense of Sunni Muslim co-religionists. Now that the Sunni cause in both Iraq and Syria has been hijacked by Islamic State militants, however, the Saudis are recalibrating, recognizing a threat to their internal stability as well as to neighbors Jordan and Kuwait.
By agreeing to the removal of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki the Iranians have also shown new flexibility. It is unlikely that the meeting in Jeddah would have happened if Iran had insisted that Maliki remain.
The pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported Tuesday that Iran has also removed Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, from primary responsibility for Iraq and given the file to his deputy, Hossein Hamadani.
If the report is true - which it may be despite a denial from a conservative Iranian website - the move may be merely cosmetic but could still be helpful since Suleimani is not only closely identified with Maliki but with building and supporting Iraqi Shi'ite militias that targeted Americans in Iraq and Iraqi Sunnis after the U.S. invasion of 2003.
While the Obama administration denies any military coordination with Iran in Iraq, it acknowledges parallel efforts to help the Baghdad government and the Kurds. This week, while his deputy was in Jeddah, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was in Irbil for a summit with the president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), Massoud Barzani.
Barzani, at a press conference with Zarif, said Iran was “the first country to provide us with weapons” after Islamic State fighters seized Mosul and began threatening Kurdish areas two months ago.
Zarif denied that Iranian troops are fighting alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga. But Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli confirmed that Iranian “advisers” had been sent to the region at the request of the KRG.
While the Obama administration has not publicly embraced Iran’s aid, the U.S. official quoted earlier, who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity, said: “We have to be pragmatic and smart about how we approach this very complex picture ... making clear they [the Iranians] understand where we think they are doing things that are not helpful but also making clear when our interests might align.”
Another key country in the emerging coalition against Islamic State militants is Turkey, which has played an ambiguous role in the past.
While many of the foreign jihadists that make up the ranks of the Islamic State group came to Syria through Turkey, the Turks have been providing humanitarian assistance to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis displaced by the latest fighting and have quietly allowed the U.S. to fly drones and possibly other aircraft over Iraq from Incirlik Air Base.
Turkey has been cautious about direct military intervention against Islamic State fighters because the militant group is holding more than 40 Turkish hostages seized at the Turkish consulate in Mosul in June. But it may be pushed to do more to help save more than 10,000 ethnic Turkmen who have been besieged by the Islamic State group for two months in the northern Iraqi town of Amerli and who are running low on water and food.
Saban Kardas, a professor at TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara, told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington earlier this week that “the hostage situation in Mosul put Turkish policy in a new delicate stage.”
However, the Islamic State group's advances against Iraqi Kurdistan and the threat to the Turkmen is pushing Turkey to rethink its policies, he said.
The Obama administration is mulling airstrikes on the Islamic State group's positions near Amerli and has also begun air surveillance in preparation for possible airstrikes on the militants' strongholds in Syria.
Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, president of the Middle East Research Institute, a Kurdish think tank, told the Wilson Center audience that a “similar model should be adopted in Iraq and Syria - [the U.S.] striking from above” with local forces below.
Besides members of the Free Syria Army, Syrian Kurds could provide ground forces. One complication is that the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, a Kurdish group that controls pockets of territory in Syria and that has fought Islamic State militants successfully, is an offshoot of the PKK, a Turkish Kurdish group that remains on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.
“There are no saints in this game,” Aldeen said. “Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries - everybody who has a stake in the region needs to rethink... [IS] is a real existential threat to us all.”
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.
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