Also present at today’s meeting was US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. At the beginning of May, Hagel gave a speech urging NATO member states to commit more financial resources to defense in order to be prepared for shared threats. Today, he seemingly offered similar recommendations to the GCC.
“The most pressing security challenges threaten this region as a whole – and they demand a collective response,” Hagel said, according to Reuters. “This approach is how the region must continue to address the threats posed by Iran.”
Although Hagel also used the meeting as an opportunity to reassure Iran’s regional rivals that Western negotiations would not enhance that threat, his remarks suggest that even in spite of Hagel’s continued support for sanctions relief and an overall soft approach, he is aware of the instability created by unchecked Iranian power in the Middle East.
With this latest meeting in Saudi Arabia concluded, the next one to be added to the schedule may well be a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Yesterday, Iran announced that it would be interested in hosting Zarif to talk about the details of some of the two nations’ rivalries. Today, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdolahian, said that Tehran now considers such a meeting to be “on the agenda,” according to Reuters.
The possible diplomatic discussions are creating a great deal of buzz in the media, though the reasons for the turnaround are unclear. Various reports from the previous two weeks suggested that the rival nations were engaged in a battle of mutual intimidation, while also trying to win regional allies to their side. The latest and perhaps most direct conflict was over Pakistan, which sent its General Raheel Sharif to attend a Saudi Arabian military parade in April, before Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Tehran at the beginning of this week.
As that visit was ongoing, four Iranian warships and a submarine were engaging in joint drills with other regional powers, having visited the port of Karachi at the beginning of the month. That flotilla returned to Iran today, and at a ceremony welcoming it back, Admiral Habibollah Sayyari remarked that the Iranian navy “has the ability to be effective in the development of the country’s diplomacy, in its special sense,” Tasnim News Agency reports.
Ironically, the warlike intimidation of the recent naval maneuvers may have intimidated Saudi Arabia into attempting diplomacy, or it may have provoked a more direct political confrontation that the Saudi’s hope to carry out face-to-face. Time will tell whether regional conflicts are poised to cool down or to heat up.
Drones for Syria
If the Saudi-Iranian meeting goes forward, Syria is sure to be one of the major topics of conversation, as the Saudis have backed the rebels while Iran has helped to prop up Bashar al-Assad. An article at The Daily Beast examines one angle of that support: the provision of drone technology to the Assad regime.
This week, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard claimed that it had successfully reproduced a sophisticated US drone that crashed in Iranian territory at the end of 2011. This has been disputed by aviation industry professionals who examined video of the supposed copy. But even if this particular claim is mere propaganda, the fact remains that Iran has had a drone program since the 1980s. And relatively advanced Iranian drones have been spotted on Syrian airfields in satellite images.
The Daily Beast article also touches upon the foreign roles in the advancement of Iran’s drone program. China was expected to help Iran examine the captured US drone, and when Tehran apparently succeeded in reverse engineering other, less sophisticated drones, the unveiling of the latest Iranian weapons technology was attended by a Russian delegation.
Oil to China
Evidence of military collusion between Iran, China, and Russia may be alarming, since much of their prior cooperation has been merely economic. Of course, there are other signals of military ties, including Chinese firms selling ballistic missile parts to Iran, the Chinese defense minister speaking on mutual security concerns, and Russia and Iran jointly supplying Assad with arms.
But economic cooperation is problematic on its own, as it can encourage Iran to flout Western-imposed restrictions, or even circumvent sanctions through direct trade and bartering. Last week, Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh explicitly rejected restrictions on oil exports, and said that the nation would export at the highest level possible. In the latest example of the Iranian oil industry pushing forward with those plans, an official announced today that Iran had secured an agreement to export 400,000 barrels per day of oil to China, according to Payvand.
If this agreement is genuine and takes effect in the next two months, it will, on its own, account for about half of the expected oil export limit that Iran was expected to stick to until the July 20 deadline for a deal with the P5+1.
More Nuclear Uncertainty
The outcome of nuclear negotiations seems to be more in doubt all the time. The AP reports that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today added her voice to the chorus of individuals expressing skepticism about Iran’s willingness to agree to a serious framework for reduced nuclear capabilities and increased transparency. While she expressed willingness to let negotiations go forward, she made it clear that “no deal is better than a bad deal.”
Coming from someone of such high status as Clinton, this commentary is possible vindication for US congressmen who have been critical of the negotiations and President Obama’s overall approach to dealings with Iran. It also gives a popular voice to think tanks and policy analysts who are similarly worried.
The Tower Magazine provides excerpts from a report published on Monday by the Institute for Science and International Security. It argues that if Iran fails to fully cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Authority while negotiations are ongoing, it will severely damage US credibility and make the achievement of a final deal virtually impossible.
The Tower goes on to point out that so far, Iran has fallen far short of such full cooperation, denying the IAEA access to the Parchin military site and providing unsatisfactory explanations of ongoing work on detonator technology.