Rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia threatens peace talks

The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran are threatening the upcoming peace talks on Syria. Until two weeks ago, the idea that Saudi Arabia and Iran would sit at the same table, was totally unthinkable. The Saudis outright refused, and the two countries have been accelerating an arms race to assure they prevail not only in Syria, but also in Yemen, Iraq and, less noticeably, in the street uprisings in Bahrain.

Al along the civil war in Syria, the Iranians have entered a partnership of convenience with Russia to bolster President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, while the Saudis have responded by giving more sophisticated weapons to different Sunni groups among the rebels seeking to overthrow him.

When the Russians began bombing those rebels last month, they seemed to be aiming right at those Saudi- and American-backed forces.

As the American officials and diplomats now are trying to establish a framework for what they call a “managed transition” that would put the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad out of power, they say the effort has been impeded by the antipathy between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

On Thursday, just as the american Secretary of State John Kerry’s plane was landing in Vienna and Kerry himself was preparing for the negotiations in the Hotel Imperial, the two countries were at each other’s throats again. Iranian officials accused the Saudis of having used the chaos around a stampede last month in Mecca, where hundreds of Iranians died, to kidnap a prominent Iranian official, Ghazanfar Roknabadi, a major figure in Lebanese politics and the Syrian war.

The day before, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, expressed doubt that Iran’s sudden inclusion in the talks would help.

“If they’re not serious, we will also know and stop wasting time with them,” Mr. Jubeir said. “There has to be certainty that Bashar al-Assad will leave.”

On Friday, as the talks begin, the world will see if the two enemies can sit at the same table.