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Iran: Tehran And Riyadh Cooperate Despite Differences

  • Charles Recknagel

Iran and Saudi Arabia this week signed an accord to cooperate in fighting drug trafficking, crime, and terrorism -- a step both hope will promote regional stability. As RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, the pact is a milestone in better relations between the two countries, even as it sidesteps their continuing differences over regional defense.

Prague, 18 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Riyadh and Tehran signed a security agreement yesterday which underlines how quickly both sides have worked to improve their relations despite a difficult past.

The accord comes amid a visit to Tehran by Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, who is the latest in a number of high-level officials to shuttle back and forth between the capitals. The signing takes place almost exactly a year after Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani made a visit to Saudi Arabia during which both countries repeatedly called for cooperation on regional security.

Under this week's accord, both sides formally pledge to work together to curb drug trafficking, crime, and terrorism. To clear the way for the agreement, they have avoided the security issues on which they disagree -- notably the presence of U.S. military forces in the region.

Analysts say that one of the impetuses for signing the cooperation agreement is both sides' concern over opium and heroin flowing from Afghanistan through Iran to markets in the Gulf.

Shahram Chubin, a regional expert at the Center for Security Policy in Geneva, says both Tehran and Riyadh worry the drug trade is fueling growing domestic addiction problems.

"There is a lot of drug trafficking and both countries are very concerned because their societies have become much more vulnerable to it. The middle class societies of youth, and in Muslim societies youth don't have a lot of diversions, has really been trapped [by drugs] in large numbers in Iran and this is a new phenomenon. And the Saudis share that concern."

International drug experts estimate some 1.2 million Iranians now have serious drug abuse problems compared to less than one million five years ago. Saudi Arabia does not discuss the size of its addict population but carries out public executions of dozens of traffickers each year.

One potential area for cooperation in reducing drug trafficking might be for Saudi Arabia to offer financial aid to Iran so that it can tighten its eastern border. Iran has sought aid from the UN and European Union to help fight trafficking and has said it wants to build a security fence across the entire length of its frontier with Afghanistan. So far, the cost of any such fence has kept the plan on paper, though Iran has built physical barriers to seal off some of the smuggler's easiest routes.

This week's pact also sets the stage for Iran and Saudi Arabia to take future confidence-building steps which could go beyond crime fighting to focus on their views of one another's military roles in the region.

Chubin says the accord leaves room for the two states to explore what he calls symbolic and practical steps to strengthen their commitment to regional cooperation even as they pursue very different security strategies. Those disagreements center on Iran's repeated calls for U.S. forces to leave the Gulf, including some 5,000 U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia.

Chubin says that with the new pact, the two sides could now begin confidence-building measures such as observing each other's military exercises while still maintaining their opposing positions over Washington

"I don't think the Saudis [yet] have come in to watch or observe Iranian military exercises, which the Iranians have invited regional states to do as a confidence-building measure. So there is [still] room for cooperation of a practical sort, which doesn't suggest that the Saudis are trusting the Iranians 100 percent or substituting the Iranians for the Americans."

The current pact sidesteps one continuing source of U.S.-Iranian tensions: the strong U.S. suspicions that Tehran was involved in the 1996 bombing of the Al-Khobar Towers complex in eastern Saudi Arabia which killed 19 American servicemen. This week's crime-cooperation accord contains no extradition clause, something which would have forced Tehran to turn its citizens over to Riyadh if the U.S. suspicions are proven. So far, Saudi Arabia has refused to blame any party for the bombing, saying it still needs to complete its investigation.

With the signing of the pact, Tehran and Riyadh now have formally sealed a rapprochement which has seen tensions between them decrease steadily since moderate Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was elected in 1997.

Khatami's visit to Saudi Arabia two years ago helped build trust between Iran and its Gulf neighbors, which in past years had suspected the Islamic Republic of supporting its Shiite Moslem co-religionists in the region.

The mutual antipathy reached a high point when Saudi Arabia provided financial support to Baghdad during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. And the two countries cut diplomatic ties for four years after Saudi police clashed with Iranian pilgrims demonstrating against Riyadh in Mecca, leaving more than 400 dead.

But the distrust began to subside after the 1991 Gulf War, which saw a U.S.-led international coalition evict Iraq from Kuwait -- with Baghdad and Riyadh as foes.

Chubin says this history of Saudi-Iranian tensions -- plus other difficulties in earlier decades -- makes the current pact a milestone of good relations.

"Even [when Iran was] under the Shah, the Saudis were very reluctant to give Iran any sort of encouragement, even though they were both [then] under the American defense umbrella. The Saudis just did not want to get very close because Iran was too strong [and] they were afraid they would lose their autonomy under any cooperation."

He continues: "So, certainly in the modern history of Gulf, this is the first agreement the two parties have had looking toward joint cooperation and particularly in a very sensitive area, as both countries are hypersensitive about security issues." In recent years, Riyadh and Saudi Arabia have also begun to cooperate more closely as OPEC members to curb the overproduction, which contributes to periodic slumps in the price of oil.

This cooperation is considered to have been key in helping the cartel rebuild the trust needed to keep members within their oil production quotas. As one result, the benchmark price of oil has rebounded to near $25 a barrel today from $13 two years ago.