Iran's Two-Faced Diplomacy

In this photo released by the Saudi Press Agency, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center-right, is greeted by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, center-left, on his arrival at the airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia Saturday, March 3, 2007. AP/Saudi Press Agency

This new analysis was written for CBSNews.com by Amman, Jordan-based reporter Kristen Gillespie.



Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's official visit to regional rival Saudi Arabia over the weekend was part of a wave of Iranian diplomacy in the Arab world aimed at diffusing a growing strain between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. It's too early to tell whether the Iranian president's visit will have any tangible effect.

Iran is a non-Arab, Shiite Muslim country, but it has the full attention these days of Sunni Arab leaders throughout the Middle East.

Ahmadinejad and his ministers have visit Sudan, Lebanon and Syria recently to spread a message of Muslim unity. But, ironically, it is Iran's continued support for Hezbollah, the Shiite militia in Lebanon, and armed Shiite groups in Iraq, leading Sunni leaders in the region to question Tehran's real goals in the region.

Iran may be talking peace, but those groups are currently destabilizing Lebanon politically, and Iraq violently.

The consensus seems to be that curbing Iran's influence in Iraq would be a good way to start bridging the Sunni — Shiite divide, before it gets any wider.

"So long as Shiites in Iraq are seen to be taking revenge on Sunnis, and Iran is viewed as supporting that, it's doubtful that the meetings in Saudi Arabia will assuage that fear," a Western diplomat in the region tells CBS News. But Saudi Arabia did what the Bush administration hasn't been willing to do: sit down with Iran and attempt to open a dialogue with an increasingly-isolated country trying to go nuclear.

Increased fighting between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq has made Jordan's King Abdullah and the rest of the government here anxious about the possibility of violence spilling across the border. With up to 700,000 Iraqi refugees living in a country with a population near five million, just a few Iraqis bent on violence could destabilize Jordan.

Sunni Arabs' worries over Iran can be divided into the concerns of the rulers, and the concerns of the people. Dictators worry about regional instability fueled by Iranian cash, and they know there are plenty of Shiites on the ground willing to act out the impulses of Tehran's ruling clerics.

Meanwhile, majority Sunni Arab populations in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and beyond, fear a mass-Shiite uprising; the sect attempting to conquer the whole region — with Iranian backing.

Many Jordanians say it was the spectacle made of Saddam Hussein's hanging that really broke open the centuries-old wound between Sunnis and Shiites. Shiites present at the execution mocked Saddam as the rope hung around his neck. To Sunni Arabs watching the shaky cell phone video around the world, Saddam represented the Sunni people, and their dismal fate at the hands of Shiites.

In a society where the official television news looks more like an old Stalinist propaganda reel, and even supposedly-independent journalists have some relationship with the formidable intelligence apparatus, rumors in Jordan carry significant weight.

After Saddam's execution, the rumors started flying; that Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the United States, and, of all countries, Israel, had formed a secret alliance to undermine Sunni Arabs.

Rumors that if it weren't for the American presence, the Iranians would cross through Iraq and slaughter Sunnis in Jordan; that one million Iranians had moved into Iraq since the war began and assumed Iraqi identities, which they would ultimately use to create a Shiite theocracy.

Iran's contradictory behavior of doling out cash and training to militias, while delivering a diplomatic message of peace, has done little to counter the rumors of a conspiracy.

After his meeting with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, Ahmedinejad declared: "We tried to devise some measures to prevent the enemies from harming the Muslim world and to foil their plot." Iran and Saudi Arabia, Ahmedinejad said, would stand together against "evil plots."

It is the power of conspiracy theories in this part of the world that makes Ahmedinajad's comments resonate with his base, and while they may sound bizarre to Western ears, it all makes perfect sense to the average person on the street here, believe him or not.

Iran's diplomatic offensive highlights the well-documented reality, that Tehran is not supporting peace in Arab countries. Externalizing the enemy and promoting diplomacy may be one way to avoid addressing that contradiction. Evil plots aside, Ahmedinejad alone can explain just what his intentions are to a skeptical Arab world. And he's trying, but who's buying it?

Kristen Gillespie
  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the CBSNews.com foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.

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