Reports have emerged that Iraq is now mediating discussions between the heads of intelligence of both Saudi Arabia and Iran, as the countries explore rapprochement and possible reconciliation. The reports come just weeks after Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi visited Riyadh where he was received warmly and signed a series of agreements and memorandums of understanding with the kingdom.

The news of talks between the two largest rivals in the region – Iran and Saudi Arabia – come as negotiations over a new nuclear deal between Iran and the US show signs of gaining traction following EU-brokered talks in Vienna. While the Iranian and US delegations refused to meet face-to-face, both are beginning to offer compromises. Iran has suggested it is willing to accept the release of frozen funds as a gesture of good will, while Biden has signaled that he is prepared to lift sanctions on critical sectors of Iran’s economy in order to move the talks forward.

Why now?

There is little doubt that Saudi Arabia had gambled on a Trump victory in the US elections. The Trump administration afforded significant advantages to Riyadh. Among the most prominent of these were support in avoiding accountability over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, apathy towards the blockade on Qatar, and more importantly, the annulment of the Iran nuclear deal that Saudi and other US allies had been adamantly against. The Trump administration went on to apply maximum pressure on Iran and its economy and hinder its ability to effectively support its numerous militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Trump also had Iran’s most prized and effective general, Qassem Suleimani, killed in a US air raid in Iraq in January 2020.

Saudi Arabia Iran

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, left, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Biden victory created a very different set of circumstances. Biden had asserted in his campaign that he would hold the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, to account over Khashoggi, and that he would end US support for the war in Yemen, revive the Iran nuclear deal, and “recalibrate” the US relationship with Saudi Arabia. The message was clear: disciplining Bin Salman would take precedence over Iran.

In a panic, Riyadh dragged a dismayed UAE and baffled Egypt into a reconciliation process with Qatar, released the women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul from prison, braced for unfavorable negotiations on Yemen by brokering a new government for President Hadi, and publicly praised Biden despite his anti-Saudi rhetoric. In other words, the perceived threat to Bin Salman specifically (not Saudi Arabia) resulted in a series of U-turns on state foreign policy. This indicated that the Crown Prince was rushing to demonstrate his utility to the new Biden administration and his willingness to toe the line in securing US interests in order to protect his position and future.

More importantly, the scramble on the part of the Crown Prince revealed the extent to which Saudi Arabia (or more specifically Bin Salman) believes that the kingdom no longer possesses the power, influence, and capabilities to leverage Washington as it used to. Where King Faisal had once raged at Washington’s support for Israel and unilaterally imposed an oil embargo, and King Abdullah had threatened to rupture relations with the US over the same issue and thereby extract concessions, Bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia lacks any confidence of asserting itself against US policies that clearly run counter to its interests.

Bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia lacks any confidence of asserting itself against US policies that clearly run counter to its interests.

It is in this context that Saudi Arabia has been willing to engage in talks with Tehran. Biden is relentless in his pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran and has publicly dismissed the concerns of even the US’ most prized ally in the region, Israel. The war in Yemen is being driven towards negotiations in which Saudi Arabia and the internationally recognized government will be the weakest parties. The result is likely to see either a quota Yemeni government with significant stakes given to the Houthis and Separatists, or a partition which will entrench the Houthis on Saudi Arabia’s southern border.

The US has not restored the two Patriot missile systems that were withdrawn in 2020, which has forced Riyadh to purchase them from Greece instead. Although Biden ruled out sanctions on Bin Salman over Khashoggi’s murder, Congress continues to remain hostile as they scrutinize bilateral ties and arms sales to the kingdom.

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Bin Salman is now seeking to adapt to what has become a difficult environment for him. In the same manner with which he rushed to reconcile with Qatar despite Doha not fulfilling any of the 13 conditions of the blockading countries, Bin Salman is now displaying the same pragmatism with Iran. The view of Saudi officials is that the nuclear deal is not about Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Rather it is the establishing of a framework of cooperation between Iranian and US interests in the region.

For Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, the nuclear deal is the public platform where Iran and the US will come to an agreement to respect each other’s gains and influence in the region and avoid undermining one another. For Biden, this makes sense as China now becomes the prime global antagonist, and the President is keen to de-prioritize the region. For Iran, the US has never been the intended target. Instead, it has been about regional hegemony and leadership over its neighbors.

The inability of the Arabs to influence these negotiations was made clear in the embarrassing manner in which Arab delegations turned up at the Vienna negotiations without invitation to privately lobby the US and EU to take their considerations and concerns over Iran into account. Since the US is hell-bent on coming to an arrangement with Iran and since there is little that the Arab allies can do about it, Bin Salman believes it makes sense to begin adapting to this harsh reality by engaging with Tehran.

However, Bin Salman is not entirely in a disadvantageous position. After all, he is the undisputed power in the kingdom. A “bad” deal will not harm his position domestically. While he is now constrained on foreign policy, his rivals are equally restricted. For all the public display of power, Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s woes have been laid bare as he has U-turned and embarked on a bid to reconcile with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and has even gone to the extent of silencing the Turkey-based Egyptian opposition.

Furthermore, Qatar no longer poses the political threat it once did as the region moves away from the battlelines drawn by the Arab Spring, and the UAE’s lobbying network increasingly appears to be the most effective and influential in Washington.

Prominent Gulf commentators have openly justified Bin Salman’s willingness to talk to Iran.

In terms of public opinion, prominent Gulf commentators have openly justified Bin Salman’s willingness to talk to Iran. Dr Abdullah Al-Nafisi has argued on Twitter that: “Given Saudi Arabia is being hurt by the Houthis, and given the key to the on/off switch on the Houthis is with Tehran, then it is normal and beneficial for Saudi Arabia to engage in talks with Tehran to stop the bloodshed. This is politics, and we should cast aside the excessive sensitivity of some.”

Moreover, Bin Salman is less concerned about foreign policy than he is about domestic policy. The Crown Prince believes his legacy will be defined by Vision 2030 and the sweeping social and economic reforms in the kingdom, rather than deciding the ideological foreign policy feuds that have lasted decades and, in Iran’s case, centuries. If he can secure a guarantee that Iran will not target the kingdom (whether by agitating the Shia population in the East or firing missiles via militias in Iraq and Yemen), then he is likely to settle. In other words, it is the very unscrupulous pragmatism that Bin Salman is notorious for that ironically makes the possibility of a reconciliation or “truce” possible.

The Potential for Reconciliation

It is worth noting that this is not the first time that Saudi Arabia and Iran have engaged in rapprochement talks. Tehran has never rejected any round of discussions that have been offered by Riyadh, irrespective of how bad bilateral relations have been. It therefore follows that the act of engaging in talks does not in itself provide any indication that reconciliation or rapprochement is on the horizon.

The UAE, Qatar, and other Gulf states are making increasing overtures to Tehran in recognition of the changing tide brought about by Biden.

Iran believes that it is on the ascendancy and has the advantage. It has survived Trump’s “maximum pressure,” delivered the Houthis to a strong negotiating position in Yemen, incorporated its loyal militias into Iraq’s state institutions, rescued Assad, and helped to facilitate Hezbollah’s enduring presence in Lebanon despite the country’s ongoing upheaval. Indeed, the UAE, Qatar, and other Gulf states are making increasing overtures to Tehran in recognition of the changing tide brought about by Biden.

On the other hand, with the offer of lifting sanctions from Biden, and therefore an opportunity to tend to its battered economy, Iranian policymakers may well settle for a long-term truce with Saudi Arabia with an eye to shore up their allies who remain engaged in difficult environments, to resume their expansion later. In other words, a reconciliation is possible not because the two parties want it, but because neither has the power at the moment to ruin the other.