Although they have been on opposing sides of the fence in the Middle East for decades, the threat of a common enemy in the Islamic State is shaping up an unlikely alliance between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Iran, whose citizens are predominantly Shi’ite, views the Sunni militant group as a threat to its same-sect allies in Iran and Syria. Likewise, the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia also fear their loss of influence and gradual if the group succeeds in establishing a fundamental Islamic caliphate in the region.
The Islamic State has carved up a huge territory that covers portions of Iraq and Syria and is imposing its own strict interpretation of Islamic law in the areas under its control.
Both countries’ foreign ministers met each other in New York last Saturday, the highest-level meeting since Hassan Rouhani became the Iranian president in 2013. His practical approach, far removed from his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s firebrand and confrontational ways, succeeded in gradually thawing the frosty relations his country has had with other nations, including the United States.
After the meeting, both ministers expressed confidence that this is just but a stepping stone towards the development of better relations between the two countries.
However, the two rivals still have to overcome decades of mutual mistrust and suspicion.
For one, Iran sees Saudi Arabia as a US lackey. Many of its citizens also remain bitter at the Saudis for their financial and material support to Saddam Hussein during the 8-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
On the other hand, Saudi’s ruling elite fear that Iran’s Shi’ite clerics are still planning to spread their brand of religion across the Middle East and frequently point their alleged support of Shi’ite groups in the region as proof of such plans.
Now a common foe that threatens both countries has forced them to set aside their differences, even if the establishment of long-term good relations still has some ways to go. For now, both Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking it slowly