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Sunday, February 11, 2007

ANALYSIS-Saudi seen worried over Iran, not U.S., in Mecca deal

ANALYSIS-Saudi seen worried over Iran, not U.S., in Mecca deal
10 Feb 2007 15:12:51 GMT
Source: Reuters

By Andrew Hammond

RIYADH, Feb 10 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia risks annoying its U.S. ally with a Palestinian reconciliation deal mediated in Mecca this week, but it has served its greater goal of countering Iranian influence, diplomats and analysts say.

Saudi Arabia is close to the U.S.-backed Palestinian faction headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who signed a deal to end deadly infighting with the Islamist group Hamas that won parliamentary elections last year.

But the agreement after two days of crisis talks in Mecca fell short of U.S. and Israeli demands for a clear recognition by Hamas of the state of Israel, which controls Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 where Palestinians want a state.

Palestinian sources said Saudi officials had pressed Hamas to agree to wording on a unity government that would "abide" by past agreements with Israel as a form of implicit recognition that would allow Western countries to lift an aid blockade.

But the deal came instead with a call from Abbas to his new government to "respect" past agreements and international law and abide by the "interests of the Palestinian people".

The United States and European Union are still considering their response.

"Most of it is about Iran," said London-based Saudi analyst Mai Yamani. "Iran has been financing Hamas, while the Saudis in the last few months even refused to meet (Hamas Prime Minister Ismail) Haniyeh. They realised that if there is more chaos in the Palestinian territories Iran will have more influence."

There may have been prior discussions between Riyadh and Washington on the need to end Palestinian infighting, she said.

The meeting at King Abdullah's invitation was the latest in a series of Saudi efforts to steer unstable political situations including Iraq and Lebanon, where Shi'ite power Iran is backing groups challenging a perceived a U.S.-imposed regional order.


While the United States -- the sole superpower in the region after the Soviet collapse of 1991 -- has failed to pacify Iraq or bring stability following its invasion of 2003, Iran has steadily grown in influence in the region.

"The fact that they came out publicly to organise this meeting is an indication of how seriously they view the issue," said a Western diplomat in Riyadh.

"They might have liked to see Hamas compromise more on some issues but this is the agreement they all came to."

Over 90 Palestinians have died in fighting between Fatah and Hamas since December, threatening a civil war that Saudi commentators feared could last for years.

Saudi Arabia and other Arab governments closely allied to Washington, including Egypt and Jordan, have been pressing the United States to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to calm the region as the flames of radicalism threaten to spread.

"In their view, progress on the Palestinian file is essential to calming the growth of radicalisation, so an agreement that advances the peace process would have a positive spillover for other regional conflicts," the diplomat said.

Saudi media said the Mecca deal was a message to Washington that it would have to take its mediation role more seriously.

"America has not been an honourable or effective mediator. When it has reservations over a Palestinian agreement between factions, it is placing Israel's interest before all others," the daily al-Riyadh said in an editorial on Saturday.

"It must understand that managing conflicts in the region requires putting good sense before any religious sympathies (with Israel) that ignore political interest."

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