Members of Iran’s parliament are urging hardliners to support the country’s bid to join the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the inter-governmental body that monitors global funding of terrorism. Joining FATF requires Iran to be in compliance with the UN International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (CFT), international funding of terrorism laws, international anti-money laundering (AML) measures, and the UN Convention Against Transnational Crime (Palermo Convention). Iran has until February to meet these requirements. It has already approved amendments to CFT/AML laws. But hardliners are stalling the approval of new anti-terrorism funding laws and the Palermo convention that might prevent Iranian support of proxies such as the Houthis and Hezbollah. Supporters of FATF in Iran tell these hardliners that Saudi Arabia would want nothing more than to see Iran fail to join FATF. Joining FATF would allow Iran to come out of isolation and engage in more trade with the outside world. In reality, if Iran joined FATF, then it will have to hold itself up to higher international standards. Iran’s support for the Houthis and Hezbollah will come under more scrutiny. Saudi Arabia would support this scrutiny and any measure that Iran undertakes to be transparent about its dealings with these groups.
It’s time to speculate if Saudi Arabia might be interested in re-opening discussions with Iran about the future of their relations. My own sense when I was recently in the kingdom is that there is this understanding there that whatever Iran goes through, Saudi Arabia has to live with its consequences as its neighbor. If the Trump administration is unclear what to do about Iran next year, besides keeping sanctions against the country in place, then I believe it is best for Saudi Arabia to carve out its own policy on Iran. This will pay off in the long haul. Even if the current US administration develops a more proactive policy on Iran, it is not clear if President Trump will succeed in implementing a policy or back off from it. In these scenarios, Saudi Arabia will need more certainty than what the US can offer in knowing how best to deal with Iran. In Iran, there is an emerging sense that the kingdom might be more receptive to the idea of talking to Tehran, especially if the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen wind down. Alternatively, if the US picks up a real fight with Iran, it will be much harder for Saudi Arabia and Iran to communicate. But no matter what, Saudi Arabia should have a policy in place to empower the kingdom to decide about its future options with Iran.
Diplomats from the UAE and Bahrain, two Saudi allies, will soon return to Syria. This is good news. It helps balance Arab interests in Syria, where for long Iran had too much influence over. That was detrimental to Syria’s stability. It is necessary to preserve the regional balance of power between Arab countries, including especially Saudi Arabia, with Iran, to have any hope for peace in the Middle East. Tehran does not seem too concerned per se with the latest developments. It understands that it must work with the realities on the ground. Its main concern is that recent efforts by the Gulf Arab states to restore good ties with Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, combined with US decision to end military engagement in those countries, will empower the US and its Gulf Arab allies to turn their focus on reversing the trend of Iran’s growing regional influence.
By agreement, Iran can send around three consular service diplomats to its interest section in Saudi Arabia, at the Swiss Embassy in Riyadh. This past year, Saudi Arabia allowed some ten Iranian diplomats to visit the kingdom in order to facilitate consular services for thousands of Iranian pilgrims who visit Makkah and Medinah annually. The Iranian diplomats were able to stay in Saudi Arabia with regular passports instead of the usual diplomatic passports that would give them certain immunities.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed to send over 85,000 Iranian pilgrims to the next main Haj. By agreement, half the pilgrims will make the trip on Saudi airlines, and the other half on Iranian airlines. Iran has asked Saudi Arabia to consider lowering airfares, and the train fares from Makkah to Medinah. Saudi Arabia may take steps to lower these fares, given that the value of the Iranian rial against the Saudi rial has dropped in recent months. Saudi Arabia will also pay financial compensations to Iranian pilgrims (or their next of kin) who were injured or died as a result of a crane collapse accident during the Umrah Haj season in Makkah in September 2015. Iran and Saudi Arabia are in ongoing talks to provide additional financial compensation to Iranian victims (or their next of kin) of the Mina Haj stampede that happened also in September 2015. The identification of the remaining bodies of Iranians who were killed in the stampede is now complete, thanks to efforts by both Saudi Arabia and Iran to use DNA technologies to identify victims.
I just returned from Riyadh, a city I have visited quite a few times these past years. The city has changed. It is more vibrant and exciting than in the past. A lot of new roads have helped de-congest the traffic. Weather quality is better. People are excited about the new changes. A Saudi author told me he wanted to leave Saudi Arabia a few years back by the time he turned 50, but with the new changes and reforms he has hopes for the country’s future and will stay. I saw a lot more great and capable women in the work force. Most women still used drivers rather than drive cars themselves.
We read a lot of bad daily news about Iran and Saudi Arabia. My blog will reverse this trend. It will give you ONLY GOOD NEWS about the two places. Thanks for reading it! Mamnoon! Shokran Jazeelan!