Reports from the recent weeks in the Arab media, and in particular the Lebanese media, indicate that the political forces in Lebanon are close to agreeing on the nomination of MP Suleiman Frangieh for president, after an 18-month period in which the country has been without a president. The reports also indicate that both Saudi Arabia and Iran welcome his nomination. In fact, reports from the recent days imply that the progress regarding this issue in Lebanon is the result of "a new atmosphere on the international and regional level," as the Saudi daily Al-Hayat put it, and of a dialogue recently launched by Saudi Arabia and Iran to discuss various matters in dispute, including the situation in Lebanon.
On December 6, 2015, the Lebanese daily Al-Safir, which is close to the Syrian regime, and the London-based Al-Hayat, reported that a dialogue had been launched by Iran and Saudi Arabia after a long period of disconnect between them. According to these papers, Saudi Foreign Minister 'Adel Al-Jubeir met his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on the margins of the November 14 Vienna conference on the situation in Syria, and the two agreed on the establishment of two joint committees. It was reported further that the committees have already started meeting in Oman and are discussing all the issues in contention between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the aim of reaching understandings.
The following are details from the reports in the two dailies.
Three-Hour Face-To-Face Meeting Between Saudi, Iranian FMs On Margins Of Vienna Conference
The Lebanese daily Al-Safir, which is close to the Syrian regime, reported on the recent Saudi-Iranian rapprochement: "It began at the foreign ministers' summit on the Syrian crisis on November 14 [in Vienna]. The efforts of several international parties bore fruit and led to a first serious meeting between Riyadh and Tehran, after a disconnect that lasted over a year, especially since the start of the war in Yemen. Knowledgeable Arab sources told Al-Safir that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Saudi Foreign Minister 'Adel Al-Jubeir held a face-to-face meeting of over three hours." According to the report, the meeting was agreed upon in advance by the leaderships of the two countries, and the two ministers spent it discussing "several regional issues, as well as the bilateral relations" between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Al-Safir added: "Zarif and Al-Jubeir did not emerge from the meeting with an agreement on most of the issues discussed, in particular the issues of Yemen and Syria. However, they agreed that it was mandatory to reach political solutions in the majority of arenas, and that the threat of terror did not spare any country in the region. The Iranians expressed to their Saudi neighbors that they [the Iranians] have an interest to preserve the stability of the Gulf, especially of Saudi Arabia, because any harm to [Saudi Arabia] would have repercussions that would harm the entire Gulf region, including Iran..."
Al-Hayat likewise reported on the meeting. I stated that, according to official Lebanese sources, the Saudi-Iranian dialogue began with a meeting between the two foreign ministers, who sat down together in a back row of the assembly hall after the Vienna conference dispersed. According to the sources, "this was witnessed by several of the foreign ministers as they were leaving the hall, including the Lebanese foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, who reported it to officials in Beirut immediately upon his return [from Vienna]."
Al-Safir stated the meeting was preceded by positive signals between the two countries, indicating a change in atmosphere: "The Iranians sensed a shift in the Saudi position, whose first fruit was Saudi Arabia's consent to Iran's participation in the Vienna conference. This was tantamount to a recognition on the part of the Gulf, for the first time, that Tehran must be a partner in the debate on an Arab issue [i.e., the Syrian crisis], which had begun to become internationalized as part of the war on terror.
"The second indication [of a shift in the Saudi position], which the Iranians noticed, was that, for the first time in over a year... a meeting was held between a senior Saudi official and Iran's ambassador in Saudi Arabia, in which the Saudi official told [the ambassador] that the Kingdom had decided to nominate a new ambassador to Tehran. The decision was taken by the Council for Political and Security Affairs, headed by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, in the presence of Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, Foreign Minister 'Adel Al-Jubeir, and the other [committee] members."
Two Saudi-Iranian Committees Have Begun Meeting In Oman
Both dailies reported that, following the Zarif's and Al-Jubeir's November 14 meeting in Vienna, two joint Saudi-Iranian committees were formed. According to Al-Hayat, Iran originally proposed "that an Iranian delegation would visit Saudi Arabia to discuss the issues in contention," but instead, the two countries agreed "to continue the dialogue about the numerous issues in dispute... by forming two committees... the first, a political committee to deal with regional crises, from those in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen to the situation in the Gulf, and [the second] a security committee to deal with the direct and indirect friction [between Iran and Saudi Arabia]." Both dailies mentioned that the committees began their work several days ago in the Omani capital.
Al-Hayat also stated, citing Lebanese sources, that Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, during a visit to Beirut last week, said that "the dialogue between his country and the Arab kingdom of Saudi Arabia [had] begun."
Resolving Presidential Crisis In Lebanon Depends On Progress Of Iranian-Saudi Dialogue
As stated, it seems that the reports of possible progress towards ending Lebanon's presidential crisis come against the backdrop of this Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. This is indicated by Al-Hayat's remark that the initiative to appoint Suleiman Frangieh for president was the result of "a new atmosphere on the international and regional level," an atmosphere that led, inter alia, to the launching of the dialogue between the two countries at the Vienna conference. According to Al-Hayat, Iran and Saudi Arabia both followed the initiative to appoint Frangieh: "Saudi Arabia was kept informed about the indirect dialogue that took place between Sa'd Al-Hariri, [head of the Al-Mustaqbal faction], and Frangieh since the beginning of the summer. It started to feel that this option was a possibility even before the Vienna conference... and eventually announced that it welcomed [the initiative]... As for Iran, it was kept informed by Hizbullah about the ripening of the idea to appoint Frangieh... and [eventually], in early November, it informed Hizbullah and [Lebanese] Parliament Speaker Nabih Beri that it would accept whatever was agreed upon by Beri and [Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan] Nasrallah."
Al-Safir and Al-Hayat added that Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed "to maintain the calm in Lebanon, keep it stable and distance it from the conflicts in the region." However, Al-Hayat implied that the resolution of the presidential crisis in Lebanon depends on the progress of the Saudi-Iranian talks. It mentioned that Hizbullah, which continues to support Michel Aoun for president, "will not move forward in the agreement with Al-Hariri [regarding Frangieh's appointment] before it becomes clear where the dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia is leading."