Over the last six months, Baghdad has hosted periodical talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran under the mediation of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. While the dialogue between the two regional arch-rivals is certainly welcome news for a polarized Middle East region, it is premature to assume that ongoing discussion will automatically end decades of tensions and rivalry.
Although described as positive, the four rounds of talks have not delivered any significant breakthrough so far. Yet, state-run media in both countries have toned downed their rhetoric, with Saudi-based Al-Ekhbariya television reporting that the dialogue was “direct and honest,” while Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan described the latest round as “cordial.” In the same vein, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman used reconciliatory language, assuring that the Kingdom wanted a “good and special relationship with Iran,” as they (Saudis) did “not want Iran’s situation to be difficult,” but on the contrary, wanted “Iran to grow…and to push the region and the world towards prosperity.”
Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian also said the discourse was “on the right track” and during the last round, Iran reportedly proposed to reopen consulates and re-establish diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia.
Iran and Saudi Arabia cut their diplomatic ties in 2016 after angry protesters attacked the Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran.
Iran and Saudi Arabia cut their diplomatic ties in 2016 after angry protesters attacked the Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran following the kingdom’s execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Given Iran and Saudi Arabia’s long-lasting geopolitical opposition that has often been accompanied by sectarian rhetoric amplifying the Sunni-Shia divide, the decision to engage in the dialogue has caught many observers by surprise and raised the question of why such meetings are even taking place?
For Trita Parsi, a prominent expert on Iran and the co-founder and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, this was not surprising at all. Iran has sought to start a dialogue with Saudi Arabia since Former President Rouhani’s first day in office. He pointed out that at his first press conference, Rouhani offered the Saudis an olive branch, but they had rejected any invitation for dialogue until the US decided against bombing Iran in response to the attack on Saudi oil fields.
As for Joseph A. Kéchichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Iran is looking for a way out of its isolation and is interested in re-establishing ties with Saudi Arabia after the latter broke them over Tehran’s disrespect of the Vienna Accords.
Speaking to Inside Arabia, Kéchichian explained that “Riyadh did not and will not tolerate that its embassy in the Iranian Capital and a consulate in Mashhad be burned, which was the reason why it broke diplomatic ties in 2016 and does not seem to be anxious to rush into any deals.” According to him, when Tehran asked the Iraqis to intercede, Saudi leaders accepted to enter into negotiations, and perhaps, seek a way out of the Yemen conflict.
However, according to Parsi, the change in heart is Saudi Arabia’s doing, not Iran’s. The reason for this is clear: As Washington continues to remove its troops from the Middle East, with Biden withdrawing Riyadh’s carte blanche, Saudi Arabia realizes that it can no longer hide behind American military might. Its best option now is to engage directly with Tehran.
Saudi Arabia realizes that it can no longer hide behind American military might. Its best option now is to engage directly with Tehran.
“As long as Riyadh could hide behind the US and felt comfortable about continued American support for Saudi’s war in Yemen, the Saudis felt no need to engage in diplomacy. Now they do,” Parsi told Inside Arabia.
Similarly, Gawdat Bahgat, professor of National Security Affairs at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Study believes that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other countries feel they have no choice but to try to mend fences and reduce tension with other regional powers. US withdrawal from Afghanistan has further deepened this perception and underlined Arabs’ suspicion of the United States.
Still, as the nuclear negotiations with Iran are scheduled to resume on November 29, Tehran also wants to send the message that US sanctions have failed to isolate the country. In this context, Bahgat explained that due to Iran’s frustrations with the Biden administration’s failure to lift the sanctions, Tehran has been trying to improve relations with its neighbors including those in Central Asia and the Gulf region.
Therefore, by negotiating with Saudi Arabia, American University Professor Gregory Aftandilian thinks that Iran can be reasonable even if it cannot reach an agreement with the United States over the issue of coming back to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). “If they cannot go back to the nuclear deal, the Iranian regime probably hopes that this outreach to the Saudis will convince other countries to put pressure on Washington to ease up on sanctions,” he told Inside Arabia.
Whether Iran thought that it could leverage its talks with the United States by opening a new diplomatic chapter with Saudi Arabia may not be as vital as some analysts believe, according to Kéchichian. In his view, the two developments could be tangentially tied but, more likely, Iran was keen to restore the nuclear deal to remove some if not most of the sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration. “Removing them is a top priority for the over-stretched mullahs who only have themselves to blame for bad choices,” he noted.
But as the pressure on Tehran is mounting, many observers wonder how genuine Iran’s motives may be, as some fear that Iran might try to distract the international and domestic public by engaging in dialogue without sincere intention to resolve accumulated disputes with Gulf states.
Parsi disagrees with this observation, explaining that the Iraq-led diplomacy between Iran and Saudi Arabia began more than two years ago and was intensified and made public this year. He further noted that “Tehran has made numerous efforts prior to this to talk to Riyadh but was rebuffed because the House of Saud calculated that it was better to have the US weaken Iran with maximum pressure and threats of war than for Saudi to engage in diplomacy. With the option of hiding behind the US gone, the Saudis have now changed their position on talks accordingly.”
On the other hand, Prof. Aftandilian assumes that Iran may be willing to tone down the verbal attacks on Saudi Arabia and try not to foment sectarian strife in the kingdom’s Eastern Province and Bahrain but is doubtful it would be willing to distance itself from Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, for fear of losing influence in the Levant.
Despite ongoing dialogue, it will not be easy for the two countries to reconcile.
Furthermore, despite ongoing dialogue, it will not be easy for the two countries to reconcile. Distrust is still high, and if the Saudis regard the Yemen conflict as a litmus test of Iran’s intentions, they are likely to be disappointed, according to Bahgat. After all, since Iran does not control the Houthis, it is unclear if Iran can persuade them to stop fighting, especially after recent Houthi military advances in Yemen’s energy-rich regions of Shabwa and Marib.
Conversely, similar arguments may be attributed to Saudi Arabia, especially regarding the situation in Lebanon, as according to Kéchichian, “Iran cannot possibly expect from Saudi Arabia to accept the literal kidnapping of Beirut by Hezbollah and will do all it can to mitigate the situation, but that burden is really for the Lebanese to carry.” He also noted that “Riyadh has done all it could and wasted $80 billion on [Lebanon] over the decades.”
Nevertheless, many observers think that Iran has the upper hand in regional matters regardless of the efforts to counter its influence.
Prof. Aftandilian agrees that Iran does have more leverage than Saudi Arabia because it is a stronger country and has more proxies in the region. A revival of the JCPOA, in his opinion, would presumably lead to the removal of sanctions against the regime, aiding Iran economically. Although Iran would still not be able to match the economic wealth of Saudi Arabia, it would be in much better economic shape than it is today. “Hence, either way, Iran comes out ahead,” he further explained.
Likewise, Parsi presumes that if the JCPOA is revived, Iran’s position may be strengthened, but Saudi options to opt-out of diplomacy will also dissipate. On the contrary “if the JCPOA dies, Saudi Arabia may feel once again that it can avoid talks with Iran and instead rely on US sanctions and pressure to contain Iran.” That being said, as Iran’s strategic presence in the region is still very strong, it seems that failure of diplomacy (whether in the case of an unsuccessful JCPOA or dialogue with Saudi Arabia) would not hurt Tehran as much as Saudi Arabia.
However, in Kéchichian’s view, this is not the case. According to him, Iran is in a relatively weak position and must swallow its pride and negotiate a new deal, as the current sanctions are hurting the country very hard. Kéchichian believes that “the longer it takes to return [to the JCPOA], the more difficult its tasks will be, but that is the price most regimes pay for their overconfidence.”
Ultimately, in order to ease the high tensions that have been hurting both sides, Tehran and Riyadh will hopefully realize they have no choice but to reach a compromise, while they can still fulfill and follow their respective national interests and avoid a zero-sum approach.