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Saudi-Iran détente: Prospects and Challenges

With confirmed efforts underway behind the scenes to mend the fractured and hostile relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, whose geopolitical rivalries stretch from the Gulf to the Levant, it is seen as a positive development for the region ravaged by war and destruction. Notwithstanding the heavy baggage of traditional rivalries of the past many decades, Saudi Arabia and Iran reassure each other that they can co-exist even in competition while respecting each other's sovereignty.

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In a series of diplomatic overtures that may significantly improve the Gulf region’s geopolitical environment, the initiation of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia hold a pivotal position.

The surprising change in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) tone towards Iran is indeed a welcome development in a region that has been torn apart by war and geopolitical rivalries.

This conciliatory tone is far from the hawkish stance the Saudi leadership held earlier as it threatened to engage militarily with Iran. Saudi Iranian relations have a torturous history dating back to the post-1979 period when Riyadh executed Saudi Shia cleric Sheikh Baqir Al Nimr.

In retaliation, a mob ransacked the Kingdom’s embassy in Tehran. Moreover, both powers have been on the opposite ends of the geopolitical spectrum across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia remains part of the American geostrategic alliance in the region, whereas Tehran has been the biggest adversary of this bloc in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

The two sides have been at loggerheads over a range of contentious issues and frequently point fingers at one another for instigating regional conflicts. Also, both countries have supported opposing parties in the Syrian civil war and the Lebanese political arena.

At the same time, Riyadh and Tehran are engaged in a proxy war in Yemen that has pushed the country into one of the world’s bleakest humanitarian crises. Relations, nonetheless, became lukewarm when the leadership of both states attempted to achieve a fair degree of normalization of ties in the 1990s when President Mohammad Khatami of Iran and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah met face-to-face.

At present, both sides have now avowedly expressed seriousness towards a negotiated settlement of bilateral or regional issues, being aware that a possible détente is in the interest of all the states with stakes in the region. Still, these talks remain prone to disruption owing to the highly volatile regional situation and machinations of regional and extra-regional spoilers.

Motive behind rapprochement

Most experts believe that Saudi softening of tone is primarily attributable to the change in the establishment at the White House and setbacks in its regional policies resulting in the accentuation of the Kingdom’s vulnerabilities.

Read More: Once in a century: Saudi Iran breakthrough expected, Foreign Minister Faisal

Perhaps a realization has dawned in Riyadh that instead of depending on outsiders to settle regional issues, the Middle East countries need to sort out their problems. The US approach towards the region has a predominant influence on the bilateral relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

American experts, including Bruce Riedel, contend that the current Iran and Saudi-Iranian rapprochement is very much in US interests. It will mitigate the risk of open confrontation and extremist activities allowing the Biden administration to reduce its involvement in the Middle East/ Gulf region.

Simultaneously, the events of the past few years have amply engendered realization among Saudi leadership that undue embroilment in power politics has seriously hampered the Kingdom’s economic and social development, without any palpable enhancement of its regional influence viz-à-viz its traditional rival Iran.

Similarly, Iran, which has been the subject of much international isolation, has had a stronger and more consistent desire for better cross-Gulf relations. Since the breaking of diplomatic ties in 2016 after Iranian hardliners stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran in retaliation to the execution of dissident Shiite cleric Nimr Al-Nimr, the Rouhani administration has repeatedly expressed a readiness to resume bilateral relations.

Israel’s desire to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is worrisome for Iran. Therefore, Tehran’s apparent dialogue with Riyadh seems to avoid isolation and push back against Israeli influence in the Persian Gulf.

Iranian Leadership, including President Hassan Rouhani, has always propagated regional multilateral structures to enhance peace and security in the Gulf to curtail foreign intervention.

During the 74th Session of the UN General Assembly, the Iranian President proposed ‘Hormuz Peace Endeavor’ to maintain security, peace, stability, and progress in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz and invited all littoral countries to join the coalition.

Read More: Iran determined to resolve issues with Saudi Arabia

Those attempts, however, have been routinely rejected by Riyadh. Given both states are major oil producers, they are keen on the security of oil trade, which is vital for their economies.

Similarly, the proactive approach of the Iraqi government to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia springs from its interests in lowering tensions, as Iraq’s oil exports and other equities have been suffering collateral damage. Hence, Iraq prefers to get along well with both its neighbors rather than becoming a victim of their proxies.

The other Gulf States, including Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait, have also been active in bridging differences between the two main regional protagonists. However, Saudi Arabia has displayed a varying degree of interest, being more prone to external influence, having several reasons to maintain a confrontational posture toward Iran.

Saudi primary concern emanates from the fear of Iran stoking unrest among the Shia population in the Gulf Arab States. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) exploited sectarian confrontation to assert regional influence and consolidate his rule, especially through prosecution of the war in Yemen.

President Trump’s aggressive and hostile approach towards Iran was manifested in the form of heavy military and arms support to Riyadh that further fuelled confrontational
Saudi posture.

However, recent developments which are conducive for MBS distinct change in rhetoric and tone vis-à-vis Iran include the Yemen war that is proving to be a substantial economic and strategic liability, Biden administration’s less confrontational approach towards Iran as it attempts to revive the Iran Nuclear Deal and does not incentivize Saudi confrontation towards Iran and the withdrawal from Trump’s carte blanche turning a blind eye to now the incumbent US administration entailing more responsible behavior from the Saudi leadership.

Reportedly, in addition to multiple senior Saudi and Iranian intelligence and military officials, other key Arab states, including UAE and Egypt, are also involved in the process.

Read More: Can PM Khan mediate Saudi-Iran ties as Pakistan signs agreements?

Simultaneously, the Saudi leadership has shown a flexible approach towards the Houthis and Syrian regime, as reflected by the Kingdom’s ceasefire and economic support offered to Yemen and reported meeting between Saudi intelligence chief with his Syrian counterpart in Damascus-another sign of a broad push towards alleviating regional tension.

Stumbling blocks

In pursuing rapprochement, the regional stakeholders, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia, will have to be wary of spoilers, including perhaps hardliners within their regimes. The most prominent external spoiler will be the right-wing government of Israel, which is expected to go to any extent to sabotage regional reconciliation akin to its active hostility towards international diplomatic efforts to restore Iran’s nuclear deal.

It goes without saying that Israeli leadership prey on and therefore accentuate the regional fissures; the Netanyahu government promotes endless alarm about Iran to preclude US-Iran détente, and attempt to weaken and isolate Iran as a competitor for regional influence, and most importantly, distract international attention from the occupation of Palestinian territory and other Israeli practices that warrant such attention.

Détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia or any of the Gulf Arab states is incompatible with Israel’s strategic design; therefore, Netanyahu (or Israeli leadership) will do what they can to torpedo it. Israel will use its newly upgraded relations with Saudi allies Bahrain and the UAE, and its increasing links with Saudi leadership, to pursue this objective.

Simultaneously, Israeli Defense Forces will step up open aggression and confrontation, such as possible anonymous attacks on Iranian/ Arab states’ facilities or interests in the Gulf region. Israeli media has highlighted Tel Aviv’s fury towards Riyadh for keeping it in the dark about talks with Tehran while asking Israel to target an Iranian ship in the Red Sea.

It was a blatant Israeli attempt to reveal Saudi secrets and cause Iranians to cast doubt on the prospects of rapprochement with Riyadh. The incumbent American administration has a crucial role in fending off the Israeli government and American hardliners who will also oppose and easing pressure on Iran.

Officials in the administration probably realize that any relaxation of tensions between Riyadh and Tehran will improve post-JCPOA follow-on negotiations addressing other issues involving Iran. However, the US always aligns its interests with Israel in the region; therefore, its support towards ongoing Saudi-Iran rapprochement may not be enduring.

Read More: Saudi Arabia, Iran unlikely to normalize ties soon

Geopolitical consequences

There is an overwhelming consensus that Saudi-Iran diplomatic engagement will have far-reaching implications for improving the regional geopolitical milieu. Nonetheless, one cannot expect a drastic transformation in the relationship from combativeness to fraternal exchanges.

Thus, on a realistic note, both the states are likely to focus on the immediate area of mutual interest, i.e., maritime security, and gradually move to more complex issues like a disagreement over Iranian influence/ armed proxies in Arab states.

For the past few years, the security situation in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, through which 25 percent of the world’s oil is transported, remained extremely volatile with recurrent hostile posturing bordering on dangerous brinkmanship, particularly from 2018 to 2020 under former President Donald Trump’s entire pressure campaign against Iran.

Currently, the US is spearheading a maritime security arrangement featuring the Arab Gulf States but excludes Iran, while the Islamic Republic has been making efforts to maintain its presence in collaboration with China and Russia.

Iran-Saudi talks are likely to expand to regional counterterrorism links, namely against Al Qaeda, which recently has grown its influence in Yemen, and Islamic State, threatening Saudi Arabia and Iran-backed groups in Iraq and Syria.

The country could see the most immediate benefits from the dialogue in Yemen, where Iran maintains links to the Houthi movement that has continued a bloody offensive despite a Saudi and UN-backed peace offer.

According to the sources privy to the Saudi Iran dialogue, Yemen figured out to be the cardinal moot point. Riyadh is asking Tehran to persuade Houthis to agree to a ceasefire and negotiations.

Read More: PM Khan recalls his conciliatory efforts to ease Saudi-Iran tensions

Reportedly, following the Saudi Crown Prince’s conciliatory message, the Iranian Foreign Minister expressed his country’s support for a ceasefire in Yemen and negotiated settlement as he met with Houthi spokesman in Oman.

Yemen, of course, will be the barometer to gauge the seriousness of Iranian-Saudi détente. However, it remains unclear whether Tehran holds enough sway over the Houthis, a Yemeni ethnic group with a fierce independent streak.

Subsequent discussions are likely to focus on more complex issues, including Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria – three Arab countries with significant Shiite populations. Iran systematically expanded its influence that has matured into potent armed non-state actors considered loyal to Tehran.

A good beginning could be made in the host country Iraq. Over the last few years, the Saudi leadership has built ties with Shiite political leaders like that of Iraqi incumbent Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who espouse an independent view from Tehran.

Officials in Baghdad and other Arab capitals hope that with Saudi-Iran dialogue, alongside US-Iran talks, Iraq will be used less as a proxy battleground. It remains unclear how the détente would play out in Syria, where Iran has propped up Bashar al-Assad’s regime with its proxy Hezbollah, and where Turkey also holds sway.

In a nutshell

Notwithstanding the heavy baggage of traditional rivalries of the past many decades, a lot can be done to get a dialogue going to reduce tension, mitigate misunderstanding, and for Saudi Arabia and Iran to reassure each other that they can co-exist even in competition.

The fact that talks involve several other regional powers besides Saudi Arabia and Iran manifests broader regional understanding to defuse tensions. Even though the challenges are apparent and the road ahead seems bumpy, which entails persistent efforts spanning over lengthy rounds of tough negotiations and significant concessions from main protagonists, this process must be carried forward in the interest of regional peace.

Afrasiab Minhas is a defense analyst and a keen observer of international relations with an in-depth understanding of regional and global issues. He holds a master’s degree in Defence and Strategic Studies from Quaid-I-Azam University. His special areas of interest include West and Central Asia, and emerging power contestation in these pivotal regions.

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