Just as likely, Saudi Arabia is growing increasingly concerned about Iranian regional influence and is planning to use any possible visit as an effort to put pressure on Zarif, and perhaps make a show of force to demonstrate that Iran faces opposition in the Middle East.
Iran is regarded as militarily superior to Saudi Arabia. However, the latter country is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and recently requested that its member states consider tightening their defensive structure in order to confront the threat posed by Iran.
Faisal’s invitation, incidentally, came one day before the GCC was set to meet in Saudi Arabia. It was also the day that US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel arrived in Jeddah to discuss Saudi and American foreign policy with respect to Iran, Syria, and more. According to the AP, Hagel will remain in the country and be present for the GCC meeting, where Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries will likely encourage the US to make a less tepid response to Iranian actions in the region.
The invitation to Iran thus comes at a noteworthy time in that it calls attention to current visits taking place in Saudi Arabia and puts them in the context of the conflict with Iran. It may also come in response to recent visits that have been made to Iran, namely that of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The threat of closer Pakistani-Iranian relations is significant because Saudi Arabia has traditionally maintained a relationship with the Pakistani army, and the possible loss of that relationship could be a major step back in Saudi Arabia’s capability to confront Iran.
The potential change in power dynamics may mean that Saudi Arabia is willing to negotiate with Iran as a matter of necessity, or it may mean that it wants to show its readiness while Pakistan is still on the fence between the two nations. Pakistani General Raheel Sharif was present at Saudi Arabia’s largest military exercise in its history, which took place in late April and was viewed as an effort to show its weapons stockpiles and personnel to Iran. For Iran’s part, it has recently docked warships in Sudanese ports, across the Red Sea from its Saudi rival.
Iran did not immediately respond to the request, and it is unknown whether Zarif will show any interest in the visit. If he does, he and Faisal will focus much of their discussion upon the conflict in Syrian, in which Saudi Arabia supports the rebels while Iran has helped to prop up Bashar al-Assad, effectively turning the tide of the war with its arms shipments and military support.
The topic of nuclear negotiations is also sure to be on the agenda. Saudi Arabian officials believe they should have been a party to the talks between Iran and the P5+1, and they tend to view the soft position of the West as “naïve appeasement,” according to CBS News.
More Negotiation Troubles
Those negotiations showed several new signs of trouble on Tuesday. The L.A. Times reported that an anonymous, high-ranking US official has spoken out to reporters in advance of the latest round of talks, saying that the optimism about dealings with Iran has gotten “way out of control.” As eager as the Obama administration has been to make a deal, there are reportedly still a number of topics on which Iranian and Western negotiators simply cannot see eye-to-eye. These include how much enrichment capability Iran will retain, how quickly sanctions will be removed, and how Iranian operations will be monitored.
The New York Times offers a thorough rundown of the obstacles that still exist with respect to negotiations over enrichment. It reports that some Iranian enrichment capability is sure to be left in place if a deal is reached, but the exact amount is unclear. Israeli officials estimate that Iran will be permitted to retain 2,000 to 5,000 centrifuges, but so far Iran is not willing to give up any, and is even attempting to expand its supply to over 50,000.
President Rouhani, for his part, specifically rejected the notion of any enrichment limits in a recent speech, saying, “Our technology is not up for negotiation.” This is part of a broader pattern of statements that Iranian officials have been making recently against the negotiations. According to the AP, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a recent speech that Iran “will not bow” to pressure from world powers at the negotiating table. He went on to urge his nation to continue all military, scientific, and economic pursuits without interruption or compromise.
The Brookings Institution quotes Khamenei as defying that pressure in strict terms that evoke the words of his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini: “To this day, America hasn’t been able to do a damn thing (to us)…the same goes for the other major powers, they too can’t do a damn thing. And not just militarily…socially they can’t do a damn thing (either).”
At the same time that Iranian officials are speaking out against a deal that involves any serious compromise, Western critics of the negotiations are still concerned that they compromise too much. In the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin reports on a report co-authored by Dennis Ross, former senior advisor on Iran to President Obama. The report argues that while the preliminary nuclear deal may have pushed Iran’s breakout time for a nuclear weapon back by about a month, that progress is more than offset by the concessions that allow Iran to enrich uranium more rapidly and that fail to place serious checks on its weapons development.
Rubin claims that sanctions relief and a weak set of demands are “allowing Iran to get closer to its goal while impeding the West’s ability to stop its illicit nuclear weapons program.”
Drone Looks Fake
Fortunately, although Iran’s nuclear weapon breakout time may not be seriously diminished, its overall technological capabilities are probably not as great as it claims. On Monday it was reported that the Revolutionary Guard said that it had completed work on a copy of the US drone captured in 2011. But on Tuesday it was reported that, predictably, this was probably nothing more than propaganda.
The technology magazine Ars Technica indicates that aviation industry analysts who have looked at video of the supposed replica drone agree that it appears to be little more than a fiberglass prop, no more functional as an aircraft than Iran’s mock-up US aircraft carriers are as ships.