Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s handshake and brief conversation with his Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir received mixed reactions inside Iran. While some described their meeting as an encouraging step to improving ties between the two neighbors, others criticized Zarif for seeking friendship with Riyadh. The two top diplomats exchanged diplomatic pleasantries on the sidelines of the Organization of Islamic cooperation (O.I.C.) summit in Istanbul on Tuesday. Hassan Hani-Zadeh, an Iranian international affairs analyst, said the handshake indicates “Saudi Arabia’s new approach toward its neighbors, particularly Iran.” He speculated that Turkey may have played a role in organizing the meeting. But Hani-Zadeh cautioned that Tehran must remain vigilant as Saudi Arabia may be attempting to “create Iranian Shiites and Arab Shiites” – citing the latest visit of prominent Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to the Kingdom.
Mohsen Rezaei, former chief commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.), however, took to Twitter to criticize Zarif. “Friendship with Saudi Arabia, unless they apologize, is a strategic mistake and a repetition of the past,” he tweeted. “They supported Saddam and we ignored it. And they have now taken several wrong steps. Why should we overlook?” he continued.
Zarif later told reporters that his handshake with Jubeir was a “normal diplomatic gesture” and did not represent a step toward normalization of diplomatic ties between the two countries. “When people run into each other in such international meetings, they greet each other, especially we who have had a long experience of contact with each other as foreign ministers,” Zarif added. But he emphasized that having friendly relations with neighboring countries will top the agenda of the next Rouhani administration.
Comment: Relations between Tehran and Riyadh took a nosedive in January 2016 when Iranian mobs torched the Saudi embassy to protest the execution of a Shiite cleric in the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia, as a result, severed its diplomatic relations with Iran. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif acknowledged in May that Iranian authorities did not manage the embassy attack and its aftermath correctly. Earlier this year, Kuwait’s foreign minister paid a rare visit to Tehran to deliver to President Hassan Rouhani a message from the six-member Gulf Corporation Council (G.C.C.) that called for frank dialogue between Iran and the Gulf states, but no breakthrough occurred. Quite the opposite, relations between the two countries have deteriorated even further in recent months - particularly because of Iran's support for armed proxies in regional conflict zones, including Yemen, Syria and Iraq.