02/08/2007, 00.00
MIDDLE EAST
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Iran-Saudi Arabia confrontation play out in Hamas-Fatah talks

by Paul Dakiki
Success in reconciling Palestinian factions would strengthen Riyadh’s hand in the struggle for leadership in the Middle East.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – “We will not leave this holy place until we have agreed on everything good, with God's blessing,” Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said referring to talks with Fatah leaders that began yesterday in Makkah. In addition to Meshaal himself, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh are involved. Saudi Arabia has strongly backed intra-Palestinian negotiations and the press, both in the kingdom and around the Arab world, has called this meeting the “last chance” to avoid a civil war.

The Makkah talks are not only important because they might reconcile Palestinians or even play a role in pacifying the region but also because they represent a further move by Saudi diplomacy in taking on a leadership role in the Arab world, at least among Sunnis, against Iran’s attempt to do the same.

Tehran is not only playing the Shia card—Shiites are the largest group in Iraq but are also significant minorities across the region—but is also trying to forge ties with Islamic fundamentalist groups like Hamas and with Syria, which has been marginalised by the West.

In its attempt to take the lead in the Muslim world, Iran’s theocratic regime is using visceral anti-Americanism as well as on a widespread belief among Middle Eastern peoples and governments that it is building its own A-bomb.

Events in Lebanon, where Shia parties like Hezbollah and Amal are pitted against Prime Minister Fuad Siniora’s Sunni-led government, are seen in Riyadh’s conservative circles of power, but also in Cairo, Amman and the Gulf States capitals, as proof that Tehran is bent on establishing a Shia Crescent backing all the Islamic groups of the region.

Hence Saudi Arabia has started a counter-offensive. With a US$ 1 billion cheque offered to Lebanon at the January 25 Paris donors conference it has boosted to the Siniora government. By inviting Palestinians to Makkah to find a way out of their impasse, it will gain immense prestige around the region. On condition that it actually pulls it off.

To achieve all this, the Saudis have had abandon their traditional modus operandi based on backdoor diplomacy and financial handouts. The Saudis are openly talking and meeting the Iranians and have pledged aid to Iraqi Sunnis once the Americans leave that country.

“We are talking to the Iranians,” Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told German magazine Der Spiegel. “They feel isolated and unable to play the role to which they feel they are entitled. We tell them: If you want to be a leading power, you must respect the interests of others and cannot exclusively pursue your own strategy. Having good intentions is not enough. You must demonstrate, with your actions, that you are not inciting strife between Sunnis and Shiites.

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