With the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States in January 2021 following his campaign pledge to pursue diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear program, it became increasingly apparent that continued hostility between the Islamic Republic and the Saudi kingdom would not be easy to sustain. In addition to promises of a softer approach to Tehran compared to his predecessor President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy of economic asphyxiation, Biden also vowed to hold those behind the scandalous murder of Saudi journalist and Washington resident Jamal Khashoggi to account and make the kingdom’s leaders, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, “the pariah that they are.”
Riyadh severed diplomatic relations with Tehran in January 2016 after hardline protesters –– broadly affiliated with (and organized by) senior figures in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) –– set its embassy ablaze in response to the kingdom’s execution earlier the same month of famous Shia cleric and critic of the royal family Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr. Over the past six years, numerous efforts have been made by both sides as well as some influential regional mediators like Pakistan and Iraq to mend fences and restore ties between the two Shia-Sunni powerhouses, but deep tensions over Iran’s nuclear program and crippling sanctions against it, the ongoing civil war in Yemen, and normalization deals with Israel have stymied the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement process.
Diplomatic endeavors to address these tensions have included five rounds of behind-the-scenes negotiations, but curiously the very fact that detente talks have so far been represented and conducted mainly by security officials rather than foreign ministry representatives speaks to the critical nature of the differences between the parties and the sensitivity of perceptions underlying them.
Iran’s Accelerating Nuclear Program and the Saudi Counterbalance
Tehran’s controversial atomic activities have, since their disclosure in 2002, cast a long shadow over its regional relations, in particular posing a long term strategic threat to Saudi Arabia as the Islamic Republic’s chief regional rival. Rihadh has in turn worked hard over the years to counter and contain what it perceives as the insidious “Iran threat” through a series of major policy measures, from consolidating security alliances with the United States and more recently with Israel, to economic pressure and diplomatic isolation, to constructing its own independent nuclear and missile programs with American and Chinese assistance.
Saudi threat perceptions about Iranian atomic ambitions are so deep rooted that the kingdom, under its new de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, has to date remained among the most skeptical opponents of the 2015 nuclear deal — also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — and gone to great lengths to oppose removal of wide ranging sanctions on Iran, including the US State Department’s designation of Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).
A year into the Trump administration’s Saudi-backed “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic Republic, hostilities between Tehran and Riyadh came to a height when in September 2019 Aramco oil processing facilities in eastern Saudi territory were targeted by drone and missile attacks widely attributed to the IRGC and its paramilitary allies in Iraq. For Saudi leaders, the Abqaiq-Khurais strikes were a rare moment of awakening that pushing too hard against Tehran could prove as risky and perilous as allowing it a free hand across the region, especially after their expectations of a firm response by the US to Iran’s brazen aggression went largely unmet.
Against the backdrop of strained American-Saudi ties under President Biden and given the growing likelihood of JCPOA revival talks irredeemably collapsing during his term or under a potential Republican president in the White House, Riyadh’s extraordinarily cautious engagement in rapprochement negotiations with Tehran seems to reflect such a hard headed understanding, that is, an emerging tendency to hedge its bets with the Islamic Republic and keep its fluctuating yet present menace at bay.
The Yemen War and Iran-Backed Houthis
A central subject of Iranian-Saudi talks for restoration of diplomatic ties, the Yemeni civil war in general and convenient cross-border missile attacks by Iran-sponsored Houthi insurgents in particular constitute an everyday threat to the Saudi national security and critical infrastructure, rendering diplomacy more of a governance need than a luxury choice for the kingdom.
Over the years since the conflict in Yemen broke out in early 2015, the Revolutionary Guards have invested strategically on Shia Houthis as a local fighting force in an attempt to build a Hezbollah-like paramilitary ally and rely on it to deter Saudi Arabia as Tehran often uses the powerful Lebanese organization to keep Israel in check. While Iranian leaders often try to downplay their otherwise indispensable technological and logistical support for the development of the Houthis’ missile and drone capabilities in public, Iran’s reliance on them as a major source of leverage and pressure against Riyadh can be detected between the lines of statements and speeches by senior Iranian decisionmakers, so much so that Tehran also hopes to neutralize the budding Saudi nuclear challenge with the help of Ansarallah military power and precision-guided missiles. In a key Persian New Year speech in March 2019, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei went as far as to warn that if the Saudis move to construct a rival atomic program with US blessing, “it will fall into the hands of Islamic combatants in the not-so-distant era,” alluding to Yemeni Houthi fighters located south of the kingdom.
Thanks to the IRGC’s consistent expertise in sharing and transfer of resources, the augmented range and lethality of Houthi projectiles have enabled the rebel group to target high-profile positions in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and threaten Israeli territory and critical infrastructure in the south as well. Even though an improved relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is no guarantee of security for Riyadh’s Emirati and Israeli allies, it goes without saying that Tehran-sponsored Ansarallah insurgents will need to stop targeting positions within the kingdom if Iranian-Saudi rapprochement should stand any credible chance of success and sustainability.
Saudi Normalization Deal with Israel
Unlike Obama-era international sanctions on the Islamic Republic which in part compelled Tehran to come to the negotiating table and sign the JCPOA in July 2015, systematic Saudi and Emirati cooperation with the Trump administration was a main factor in the unprecedented effectiveness of the “maximum pressure” policy against Iran. Absent the Saudis and Emiratis being fully on board with comprehensive American sanctions on Tehran, it would have been far more difficult for Washington to drive Iranian oil exports down to “zero,” as former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used to emphasize. As briefly discussed earlier, Tehran sought to break this synergistic pattern of economic pressure by unleashing its own. as well as Yemeni Houthis’ missile and drone capabilities against critical Saudi installations. But this coercive retaliatory policy did little to alleviate the bite of sanctions on Iran which continues to date.
In a similar fashion, the Arab-Israeli normalization deals, amounting to an unannounced security and intelligence coalition, have fostered an unprecedented level of strategic synergism against Iranian national security interests across the region, especially in Iraq and Syria as well as inside Iran itself. This is evidenced in part by the record success of Israel-attributed operations to set back Tehran’s nuclear program and unconventional plans to equip its regional proxies with advanced weaponry.
As such, the Iranian leadership’s undiminished enthusiasm for restoration of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia is to a great extent driven by a desire to undercut the emerging Saudi-Israeli alliance which they see as a grave menace against Iran and its ultimately expedient support for the Palestinian cause. According to Jalil Rahimi, a ranking member of the Iranian parliament’s Foreign Policy and National Security Committee, Tehran-Riyadh rapprochement and opening of embassies will limit Israeli influence and prevent its infiltration in the region.
Last but not least, at a time of shifting alliances and rising uncertainties exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the longer Iran waits to break out of its continued regional isolation, the further its manoeuvring space shrinks, ultimately compelling it into greater compromises in dealings with rivals like Turkey and big powers like China and Russia.