Iran and Saudi Arabia, Regional Rivals, Call for Gaza Cease-Fire

The leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia, regional rivals who restored diplomatic ties this year, met in Riyadh on Saturday at a summit where they called for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and unconditional delivery of humanitarian aid to the enclave, which Israeli forces have besieged since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.

The two Islamic countries, who support opposing factions in proxy conflicts across the region, first announced their diplomatic breakthrough in March, after years of hostility, in a deal brokered by China. But it was unclear whether the shift would lead to a lasting détente between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni monarchy and Iran’s Shiite government.

Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, however, appears to have hastened the warming of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, just as delicate diplomacy had been inching Saudi Arabia and Israel toward possible normalization of relations. Iran, which Israel considers its most dangerous foe, is a powerful patron of Hamas.

President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran, whose visit to Saudi Arabia was the first by an Iranian president to the kingdom in more than a decade, was greeted at the summit venue by Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Iranian president draped on his shoulder a kaffiyeh, the black and white square checkered scarf that has become a badge of Palestinian identity.

The two leaders had spoken by phone for the first time just a few days after Oct. 7. Iran said in March that Mr. Raisi had received an invitation to visit the kingdom shortly after the two countries announced resumed relations.

The war was set off after the Oct. 7 attacks in southern Israel by Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that controls Gaza, in which roughly 1,200 people were killed and 240 taken hostage, according to Israeli officials.

Since then, Israel has bombarded Gaza with thousands of airstrikes, laid siege to the territory by cutting off water, food, fuel and other basic necessities, and launched a ground invasion with the stated intention of destroying Hamas, which Israel and many other countries regard as a terrorist organization.

Mourning lost relatives outside the Nasser hospital in Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, on Saturday.Credit…Yousef Masoud for The New York Times

The Israeli air war and artillery strikes have killed more than 10,000 Palestinians, many of them children and women, according to the Gazan Health Ministry.

At the summit, Mr. Raisi criticized the international community for what he said was its silence on violations committed against civilians in Gaza. Both Israel and the United States — its most important ally — oppose a cease-fire for now, saying it would only allow Hamas’s military wing to regroup, though Israel has agreed to short what officials call “humanitarian pauses” to allow people to leave combat zones.

The Saudi crown prince said the crisis had demonstrated “the failure of the Security Council and the international community to put an end to the flagrant Israeli violations of international laws.”

The Arab and Muslim participants at the summit called for an arms embargo against Israel and said regional peace could not be achieved without resolving the Palestinian issue based on the two-state solution, a longtime pillar of Mideast diplomacy efforts.

Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, said regional countries’ pressure on Israel was beginning to pay off.

“We are starting to see a shift in positions, not enough yet, but moving in the right direction,” he said at a news conference after the summit. “We are starting to hear that countries that used to give Israel a blank check are now talking about protecting civilians and the importance of conducting combat within the boundaries of International Humanitarian Law and humanitarian pauses.”

President Emmanuel Macron of France on Friday called on Israel to stop the killing in Gaza. Mr. Macron had expressed firm support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks.

But international support for Israel after those attacks has eroded as images emerge daily of the destruction and death in Gaza from Israel’s military campaign.

Smoke rising from Gaza after Israeli strikes on Saturday.Credit…Kenzo Tribouillard/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

After the Saudi and Iranian leaders finished their speeches, they left the main conference hall for a bilateral meeting.

Prince Mohammed’s welcoming of Mr. Raisi amounted to a remarkable departure for the Saudi leader, who once bluntly warned Iran not to pursue expansionist policies in the region. “We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia,” he said in a televised interview in 2017. “Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”

He also once likened Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to Hitler in interviews with American news outlets. “Because he wants to expand — he wants to create his own project in the Middle East very much like Hitler, who wanted to expand at the time,” the crown prince told CBS News in 2018.

Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said that Riyadh’s close consultations with Iran demonstrated a pragmatism by the kingdom.

“They know Iranian cooperation is needed to prevent the conflict from spreading and, perhaps, even in navigating an endgame with Hamas,” Ms. Diwan said.

“But with some leaders boxed in by normalization and others demanding tougher measures, Saudi Arabia is well placed to hold the middle ground,” she said. “To succeed, they will need the Americans to step up.”

Since the war, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its regional allies have carried out a stream of rocket and drone attacks against American forces in Iraq and Syria. Hezbollah, the powerful Iran-backed militia group in Lebanon, has also continued to exchange fire with Israel’s military, raising fears of a wider conflict.

Hamas’s ties to Iran have also undergone an evolution in recent years. One of the group’s leaders in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, restored Hamas’s ties to Iran, which had frayed in 2012, when Hamas shut its office in Syria, a close Iranian ally, during Syria’s civil war.

That restoration deepened the relationship between Hamas’s military wing in Gaza and the so-called axis of resistance, Iran’s network of regional militias, according to diplomats and security officials.

Saudi Arabia had initially scheduled two summits for this weekend, one for the Arab League and the second for members of the much larger Organization of Islamic Cooperation. But they were combined into one event on Saturday, and a newfound unity — even if on the surface — was on display.

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority also attended the summit. The presence of Mr. Assad, who was shunned over atrocities committed in Syria’s civil war, cemented his return to the regional fold when he joined an annual summit of Arab leaders in May for the first time in 13 years.

Mr. Raisi also met with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt on the sidelines of the summit and discussed the normalizing of diplomatic relations between Cairo and Tehran. Iran and Egypt broke ties after the revolution in 1979 and briefly resumed them during the short presidency of Mohamed Morsi, a senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was Egypt’s first democratically elected president.

Ahmed Al Omran reported from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and Yara Bayoumy from Jerusalem. Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting from New York.

Back to top button