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Nader Habibi

Saudis at the negotiating table

THE UNITED STATES and Iran have held two rounds of talks over the security and stability of Iraq -- one in May and one in July -- and have also set up a joint security committee for regular consultation in the weeks ahead. More talks at ambassadorial or higher levels are likely in the coming months.

But the likelihood that these talks will produce any positive results remains small. Even if the talks succeed, they can only reduce the Shi'ite insurgency that the United States believes is being supported by Iran. The Sunni insurgency will continue and may intensify. And recent reports have revealed that US officials are concerned that significant amounts of financial and volunteer support for the Sunni insurgency are flowing into Iraq from Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi government does not support the Sunni insurgency, but some segments of Saudi society clearly do. A few Wahabi imams in Saudi Arabia have urged their followers to go to Iraq for jihad against the foreign forces and the Shi'ites.

There is no doubt that the Saudi leadership dislikes the current Shi'ite-dominated government of Iraq -- which it regards as being too close to Iran's cleric rulers. The Saudis fear that if the Iran-US negotiations succeed, the Iraqi government will grow stronger. This suspicion is shared by Saudi people and may be a motive for some to increase their support for the Sunni insurgents.

In light of these facts, it is in the interest of both the United States and Iran to invite Saudi Arabia to join their negotiations. The presence of Saudi Arabia increases the chances that the talks will be fruitful.

Saudi participation serves US interests in two important ways. First, Saudi Arabia will be perceived by Iraqi Sunnis as their representative and protector in the negotiations, and they consequently will feel less defensive. This could help reduce the intensity of the Sunni insurgency. The decline in the Sunni insurgency will in turn reduce the Shi'ite violence, which is often a response to Sunni attacks.

Second, the US-Saudi relations have been strained in recent months and Saudi suspicions of the negotiations between Iran and the United States could lead to further deterioration of bilateral ties. By including Saudi Arabia, the United States can improve this relationship. Saudi Arabia will then be more supportive of recently renewed US efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Saudi participation also would benefit Iran in several ways.

Iran wants Sunni countries to accept the Shi'ite-dominated government of Iraq and to help end the Sunni insurgency against it. But this is unlikely unless the mainstream Sunni governments are actively involved in negotiations over the security of Iraq and the rights of its Sunni minority. Participation of Saudi Arabia in these talks can be a positive step in the direction of Sunni involvement.

Furthermore, Iran is facing rising anti-Shi'ite sentiments in the Arab world. These sentiments are inflamed by Wahabi religious leaders in Saudi Arabia and, to some extent, they are tolerated by Saudi government. Saudi participation in the security talks would provide an opening for Iran to improve its ties with Saudi leaders and put a damper on anti-Shi'ite sentiments.

If bringing Saudi Arabia into Iraq security talks is in the interests of both Iran and the United States, then we should ask whether the Iraqi and Saudi governments will also be interested in this idea. I believe they will be.

Since participation by Saudi Arabia would help pacify Iraq's Sunni population, it must be welcomed by the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government also would appreciate that Saudi participation could increase the likelihood that other Sunni Arab governments would show a less hostile attitude toward it.

Will Saudi Arabia join these negotiations if invited? In light of the Saudi suspicions about secret agreements between Iran and the United States over Iraq, they should welcome an opportunity to get directly involved.

Nader Habibi is the Henry J Leir Chair in Economics of the Middle East at Brandeis University's Crown Center for Middle East Studies.