3 Sep 2014

Islamic State turning old enemies into new allies

I arrive back in Iran for the first time in a year to find extraordinary change in the air, on many fronts. By far the most intriguing and geo-politically important is the tender opening between historic foes – Saudi Arabia and Iran.

For months now people have been describing much of what is going on in Syria and Iraq, as a holy war. At its root – Sunni Saudi, versus Shia Iran. These two centres of Islamic practice have been bitter enemies for years.

The differences between the two faiths are too complex to go into here. But both share Mohammed, Islam’s founding  prophet. Both share the Koran. It is what happened after the prophet’s death that divides them. Today, their two societies are markedly different. The far more numerous Sunnis dominate the Arab world. The Shias dominate Iran, and there are pockets of Shia belief in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and even Saudi Arabia itself.

But amid the rise of, and widespread exhibition of the vile inhumanity of the Islamic State (IS) – filmed beheadings, the rape and mass removal of women to provide wives for IS fighters; the killings of Christians and minority Islamic faiths – suddenly there is change in this region.

Most remarkable has been the tender opening of dialogue between these two vast regional enemies – Iran and Saudi Arabia. This week Iran’s deputy foreign minister made a rare dash to the Saudi capital of Riyadh. This is on the very same day the Saudi King warned Britain that it was a live target for some kind of an attack by IS.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi attends a news conference after a meeting regarding the Syrian crisis, in Cairo

In this tender opening lies some hope that the seat of IS can be addressed in Syria. Both Iran and Saudi, on different sides – Iran pro-Assad, Saudi pro-rebel – have vast influence. The Russians, for all the tension over  Ukraine, are involved, as are the Americans too. This sees the US airforce bombing IS in Iraq (though not yet in Syria) from the air, and Iranian-backed Shia militias fighting IS on the ground.

But it is to the regional powers the world is currently looking. Standing here in Tehran, it is pretty clear already that Iran sees the threat from IS, to the entire region, to be so grave as to necessitate dramatic changes that include some of the most improbable alliances that even this region has ever seen.

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