With Saudi Arabia and Iran long at loggerheads, backing rival factions and brands of Islam from Yemen to Iraq and Lebanon to Afghanistan, a recent string of meetings between top officials clearly signals major changes in the relationship between the Middle Eastern rivals.
Meeting four times in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and once again on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, Iran has reportedly left the Saudis with a roadmap to rapprochement and is now awaiting a reply.
That roadmap likely consists of a range of issues, with a combination of perceived US withdrawal, fear of future escalation, economic woes and a string of events on the ground giving both Riyadh and Tehran good reasons to make nice – at least for now.
Yet the two countries – both of which see themselves as leaders of the Islamic world – also have much that still divides them, with their motivations for reaching out and making up quite different.
Meanwhile, uncertainty over the shape of the new Iranian regime and the future course of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the Iran nuclear deal – are also clouding the potential for rapprochement.
Nonetheless, with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian saying the talks had gone “a good distance” on October 8, and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan describing a subsequent round on October 15 as “cordial,” a remarkable movement in normally icy relations is underway.
“While no major strategic decision has been taken by either side so far,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group, told Asia Times, “a tactical de-escalation is now in both sides’ interests.”
Largely-Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia has long held a deep antagonism towards largely-Shiite Muslim Iran, although this has escalated since the 2011 “Arab Spring.”
That wave of uprisings was seen as a major threat to regional stability by the Saudi regime. In particular, Riyadh saw it as strengthening the hand of Tehran, accusing it of trying to exploit the risings to establish a “Shia crescent” around the Middle East.
According to this view, with Iran in the center of the crescent, the northern arm runs through the powerful, pro-Iranian Shiite parties in neighboring Iraq, to the Iranian-backed Assad regime in Syria, then on to the Shiite Hezbollah organization in Lebanon.
The southern arm, meanwhile, runs through Shiite-majority Bahrain to Yemen, where the Shia Houthi movement seized the capital, Sana’a, in 2014 and has since expanded control from there across much of the country.
Saudi Arabia intervened militarily in Yemen in 2015 and has been engaged in a costly – and largely fruitless – war there ever since. The kingdom has also received US backing for this, as well as for its other operations against Iran and its proxies.
The Saudi-US relationship flourished under former US president Donald Trump, who made Riyadh his first overseas destination upon his election in 2016.
Now, however, with President Joe Biden, “there is a genuine fear in Saudi Arabia that America will abandon the kingdom, as the US pivots further to the Pacific,” Andreas Krieg, from the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, told Asia Times.
A key factor here, too, was the September 2019 missile attack on the Saudi Aramco refinery at Abqaiq. Claimed by the Houthis, the missiles likely used Iranian technology.
While the Saudi’s US ally did respond back then – Trump sent troops and additional missile batteries to Saudi Arabia as a result – Biden has since announced an end to US support for Saudi operations against the Houthis in Yemen and withdrawn US Patriot anti-missile systems from the kingdom.
Under such circumstances, for Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, it is “imperative to develop a mechanism of regional de-escalation with Iran,” adds Krieg.
Now, the kingdom wishes to adopt “a UAE model,” asserts Vaez.
After a spate of attacks on shipping in Emirati waters – including four oil tankers sabotaged off the Emirati port of Fujairah in May 2019 – “the UAE sent a security delegation to Tehran and de-escalated, getting their tankers out of the line of fire,” says Vaez. “The Saudis now want the same thing.”
Nuclear deal or no deal
Taking cover has likely become even more imperative for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states given developments with the JCPOA.
The future of this deal – which the US pulled out of under Trump, but which Biden seeks to return to – is very much in doubt at present.
New Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi – widely seen as more hardline – may well take a tougher approach to any attempt to revitalize the nuclear deal than his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani.
“Because of that, a stalemate becomes increasingly likely,” says Vaez. “Meanwhile, the Iranian nuclear program is growing exponentially, making the JCPOA potentially redundant.”
If that happens, there is a high chance that the West, too, will take a harder line against Iran – and that Israel, which greatly fears a nuclear Iran – might return to military and covert action against the Iranian nuclear program.
“By this time next year,” warns Krieg, “there could be a full-scale escalation cycle going on in the region.”
Protecting itself against that, the kingdom is therefore very much interested in a new understanding with Iran.
For Iran, however, motivation for better relations with Saudi Arabia comes from quite a different place.
“Iran does not really fear Saudi Arabia,” says Krieg. Instead, Tehran “is interested in limiting escalation and a lifting of sanctions.”
Iran’s economy suffers from a range of international sanctions on its oil and gas exports – the country’s main currency earner – reintroduced by Trump after he pulled the US from the JCPOA.
The possibility of more Saudi-Iranian trade in return for de-escalation has been trailed by Riyadh throughout its talks with Tehran. In early October, Iranian official statistics began showing that trade with Saudi Arabia had now resumed, after reaching zero the previous financial year.
“Better relations might also drive a wedge between Saudi Arabia and the US,” adds Vaez, with the sanctions a major piece of leverage the US can use to get a favorable new nuclear deal.
At the same time, “Iran wants to prevent a coalition of regional countries against [it].”
In 2015, Saudi Arabia led the UAE, Egypt, Sudan, Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco into Yemen, to battle pro-Iranian Houthis.
That coalition also had US backing, while now, “the US is being supportive of a degree of de-escalation – or at least, isn’t trying to prevent it,” says Vaez.
This gives the tentative rapprochement a better chance of success. Yet, for all that, the two sides’ different goals, and their wide range of outstanding disputes, leaves a major question mark over how far all this can really go.
“We’ve always said we want to find a way to stabilize the region,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan told the UK’s Financial Times in mid-October. With Iran’s new president still pondering his foreign policy options, how much that Saudi desire is shared remains to be seen.