Iran And Saudi Arabia: Is Reconciliation On The Horizon? – Analysis
By Matija Šerić
Over the past decade, since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, the struggle for supremacy between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East has been felt in almost every regional issue.
In the background of the “Middle Eastern Cold War” is the Shia-Sunni conflict. Riyadh sees itself as the leader of the Islamic world due to the existence of Islam’s holiest places, Mecca and Medina, on its territory. However, this understanding was called into question after the successful implementation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. After the revolution, Shiite-majority Iran began to establish its influence in the area of Western Asia. In addition to religious rivalry, the rivalry of the two countries also manifests itself on secular issues, specifically in oil policy. Both countries want to export as much crude oil as possible to as many parts of the world as possible in order to earn as much as possible.
In the last turbulent decade, the competition for regional influence between Riyadh and Tehran resulted in the destruction of numerous bilateral and multilateral alliances and was a catalyst for wars, while at the same time threatening the outbreak of a larger war which would involve United States, NATO, Russia and other regional forces. However, times are changing, namely there is a reduction in tension throughout the Middle East and it seems that both powers are currently seeking to diplomatically overcome their differences. The normalization of Iranian-Saudi relations is in sight.
The Iranian-Saudi Cold War in the hot Middle East
The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia began in the 1980s because Tehran consistently opposed American policy in the region, which was often implemented on the ground by Riyadh. The authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran have always opposed US influence in the region and tried to minimize it. However, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has always been America’s main ally in the region. Of course, there is also the inevitable theological conflict between the two branches of Islam. Since the implementation of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, KSA has viewed Iran as a theological competitor in the region. After the incident in Mecca in 1987, where Saudi security forces killed around 400 Shiite pilgrims, in a public address, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared that “these vile and godless Wahhabis are like daggers that always pierced the heart of Muslims from behind”, and announced that Mecca was in the hands of a “group of heretics”. Bad relations followed.
More recently, diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed in early January 2016. Namely, on January 2, 2016, 47 people were killed in several Saudi cities, including prominent Shia cleric Ayatollah Nimr Baqir al-Nimr. Iranian Shiites responded with protests in the capital Tehran and other cities. Protesters stormed and looted and set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the Saudi consulate in Mashhad. The next day, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the severance of diplomatic ties with Iran. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani condemned the attacks, but that did not change anything and relations remained severed.
Riyadh has stepped up its anti-Iranian foreign policy adventures since Mohammed bin Salman was named crown prince in 2017. From the civil war in Syria to the war in Yemen, this has meant that KSA and Iran are at war through proxies in the so-called proxy war conflicts. Warfare through intermediaries was sometimes so heated that it threatened a direct conflict between the two “irreconcilable enemies”. For example for the Houthi attack with precision missiles and drones on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019, many blamed Iran. The governments of the USA and KSA said that Iran was behind the attack, while France, Germany and Great Britain issued a joint statement that Iran was responsible for the attack. As expected, Iran has denied any involvement in the attacks. In addition, the extremely hostile attitude of the Trump administration towards Tehran (assassination of Iran’s favorite General Qasem Soleimani in January 2020), brought the USA and Iran to the brink of war. Such a war would be very difficult for Riyadh to avoid since it is America’s main partner in the region along with Israel.
The role of the USA
Recently, the Biden administration has been conducting diplomatic efforts to thaw relations with Iran in an effort to revive the 2015 international agreement to freeze Iran’s nuclear program, from which the US withdrew under the Trump presidency. Although the negotiations on the revival of that agreement did not result in a concrete agreement, they coincide with broader diplomatic initiatives throughout the Middle East to stop conflicts and turn the region towards peace and stability. Although somewhat pathetic, one should not ignore Biden’s promise to make human rights a central pillar of American foreign policy and the Saudi monarchy a state in exile in the international community.
Admittedly, concrete changes in this matter are still not visible and Biden has not radically changed American policy towards the Saudi monarchy. He even visited Riyadh last year and met with Crown Prince bin Salman in an effort to get American partners from the Gulf to side with the West and against Russia regarding the war in Ukraine. Such an American initiative did not produce any results. The Gulf states did not impose sanctions on Russia. Moreover, despite Washington’s pressure to increase production and lower global oil prices, Riyadh and the OPEC member states in October 2022 in Vienna agreed with the Russians that production would remain at relatively low levels of two million barrels per day. This further increased the tensions in the Riyadh-Washington relationship and gives the Saudis opportunities to look for partners elsewhere, including in Tehran.
Yemen, Syria, Libya, the Holy Land
After the recent ceasefire agreement expires, the civil war in Yemen will continue to create one of the worst global humanitarian crises. Syria’s 12-year civil war has now entered an extended finale that, while less bloody, remains equally unpleasant and dangerous. Libya has seen a respite in its civil war since a ceasefire was agreed in October 2020 and a transitional government was appointed in March 2021, but its transition from civil war to electoral battle has hit an increasingly tense impasse. Most importantly, the lethargy of the fighting in these countries by no means guarantees the establishment of lasting peace in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the recent flare-up of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the fighting between Israel and Hamas in May 2021, serve as a reminder that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not been resolved and poses a threat that could lead to war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Like all other conflicts in the region, the “eternal conflict” in the Holy Land is a stage for the Saudi-Iranian proxy conflict. However, while it would be natural to expect Saudi leaders to give vocal support to the Palestinians in their conflicts with Israeli security forces, they are deliberately silent on the Palestinian issue in exchange for Israeli support in the diplomatic war against Iran.
The agreements on the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states (United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan) that were signed in the last months of the Trump administration in late 2020 and early 2021 formalized a strategic realignment in the region that until then had been an open secret. Until recently, the question was whether the Saudi kingdom would follow that example and establish diplomatic relations with Israel? However, the normalization of Saudi Arabia’s relations with Israel no longer seems so likely since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to the head of the Israeli government and established a right-wing coalition that does not look favorably on the normalization of relations with Riyadh. It is an additional impulse to improve Saudi-Iranian relations.
The announcement of a new era in the relations between Riyadh and Tehran
With the passage of time, as the wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya subsided, negotiations on the normalization of Iranian-Saudi relations began. Official Baghdad has been mediating direct negotiations between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran since April 2021. Iraq was symbolically chosen as a mediator because of its mixed Muslim population (29-34% Sunni and 61-64% Shia). The fifth round of negotiations was held in April last year. On July 23, 2022, Iraq’s foreign minister, Fouad Hussein, announced his country’s desire to host a public meeting between the foreign ministers of KSA and Iran.
Like other Arab states in the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia has so far refused to take an official position on the anti-government protests in Iran. In fact, it took more than a month for Saudi officials to even mention the issue. On October 19 last year, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said his country “has a fixed policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries,” adding: “We wish Iran and its people all the best.” Saudi caution, like that of other Gulf states, is based on two reasons. First and foremost, authoritarian states like KSA do not think favorably of attempts to change the regime on the street through revolution (they do not want their regime to be overthrown by street riots). Considering the political and social processes in the Middle East, the eventual democratic transformation of Iran could have serious consequences for its Arab neighbors.
Second, the Gulf states believe that the Islamic Republic is still capable of containing the situation and that regime change is not imminent, at least in the short term. Openly supporting the anti-government movement would risk retaliation from Tehran. It can be concluded that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states are definitely not interested in supporting the internal anti-regime revolution and even less in an external invasion. Nevertheless, a prominent Iranian general, Esmail Ghaani, gave a speech in December in which he accused the Saudi monarchy of indirectly interfering in Iran’s internal affairs. However, Riyadh knows full well that the collapse of Iran would be worse than the collapse of Iraq after the US invasion in 2003.
On December 21 last year, Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, revealed that his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, had informed him of the Kingdom’s “willingness to continue dialogue with Iran.” In early January, Iran’s assistant foreign minister, Ali Reza Enayati, revealed that his country had signed security agreements with some neighboring countries, including KSA, indicating that Tehran’s hand of reconciliation was being extended to Riyadh. On January 23, the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed the Saudi “positive” attitude towards the restoration of relations with Tehran. A spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, Nasser Kanaani, said at the time: “We have heard positive views from Saudi officials and we appreciate the positive views and consider them a positive indicator. We welcome the process of strengthening and raising the level of relations with neighboring states and countries in the region and we will warmly praise the hand of friendship extended to us, and we will certainly welcome any positive initiative and improvement of relations.”
Furthermore, Jalil Rahimi Jahan Abadi, a member of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy, in early February highlighted the need for Iran to proactively manage disputes in foreign relations. Commenting on renewed efforts to resume talks between Tehran and Riyadh in Baghdad, he said: “Tehran-Riyadh relations have had many ups and downs and many efforts have been made to improve them, and the holding of five rounds of talks and negotiations was in this direction. Based on this, it can be recognized that due to the sixth round taking place in the near future, there is hope for the restoration of relations and the reopening of embassies. Iran and KSA are considered important countries of the Islamic world and the Middle East, so improving the relations between the two countries will eliminate the abuse of the Zionist regime. In fact, this infamous regime is the cause of tension and challenges among Islamic countries. Also, the improvement of relations between the two countries can facilitate joint cooperation between Iran and the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf”, said prominent Iranian parliamentarian Rahimi Jahan Abadi in an interview with the Iranian news agency ICANA.
Iraq’s foreign minister, Fouad Hussein, said recently that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had invited senior Iraqi officials to arrange a face-to-face meeting between the foreign ministers of Tehran and Riyadh as part of diplomatic efforts to thaw frozen relations. According to Hussein, the Iraqis will announce the results of the private talks, and a public meeting of the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers will also be held. The current difficult times that Iran is going through coincide with the very conciliatory tone used by the Saudis. Saudi policy makers are mainly focused on their own development and the realization of their Vision 2030 and do not want to enter into warlike relations with their neighbors. This is an opportunity that Iran must seize. Relations can be improved in a similar way that Iran has improved its relations with Turkey, despite being on opposite sides of every regional conflict, whether in Iraq or Syria.
The benefits of normalizing relations for Iran
The Iranian authorities must be prudent enough to recognize the opportunity presented by the current historical moment. The benefits of normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia for Iran are great. Through the normalization of relations with the Saudis, the Iranians would make a great contribution to the stabilization and prosperity of not only their nation but the entire region. There are two opportunities for Iran to seize: one is Yemen and the other is Lebanon. These are opportunities where Iran can replace conflict with cooperation. Not only would a change in policy towards these two states help Tehran improve its relations with its neighbors, but it would also improve its standing on the international stage. Tehran is in dire need of improving its international reputation in order to improve the country’s unenviable economic situation.
In Yemen, the initial position of the Houthis on the national dialogue led by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in 2014 was to agree to the federalization of the country. As the fighting began and the Houthis began to advance on the ground, emboldened by Iranian support, they began to raise the bar on their demands. The Iranians should work with the Saudis to get the Houthis to return to their initial demands and accept a federal system that guarantees Yemen’s unity, while ensuring that they receive adequate representation in state institutions. In Lebanon, Iran can work with Saudi Arabia to establish a government of technocrats that can implement reforms and sidestep divisive political issues such as the Hezbollah issue.
The protests in Iran and the conciliatory tone of the Saudis present a chance for Iran to make a foreign policy shift that would strengthen the regime’s domestic position without significant political change. Essentially, the Iranians need to reform their foreign policy in order to maintain the order of the Islamic republic. Two decades ago, during the rule of reformist President Mohammed Khatami, Iran tried to open up to the West and its neighbors, but neither the US nor the Gulf countries understood the significance of the moment and seized the opportunity.
Now, at the beginning of 2023, Iran has the opportunity to open up to its neighbors, whether they are Sunni states, Israel or Western powers. As the first step in changing its policy, Tehran should start cooperating with Riyadh. Now is the perfect time for Iran to show the international community and its neighbors that it can work for regional stability while also working on economic reforms to meet the daily needs of its people. Also, the reopening of consular offices will allow Iranian citizens who want to go on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina to do so.
Benefits of normalizing relations for Saudi Arabia
And the Saudis would have great advantages from the normalization of relations with Iran. They would improve their international standing by sealing the Yemen peace deal together with the Iranians. Riyadh wants to play a role in Iraq, a country where Iran has great influence because of its large Shiite population. This is why the Iraqi government took the lead in reconciling Iran and Saudi Arabia. If Riyadh and Tehran were to reconcile, it would greatly relax Sunni-Shia relations in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. Recently, the Saudi authorities want to distance themselves, that is, free themselves from the influence of USA, which is evident in view of the good, one might even say, cordial relations with Russia. Improving relations with Iran would give the Saudis more room for maneuver in diplomacy and economics.
KSA and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) view the war in Ukraine as a complicated European conflict, which does not require Arab states to stand up to Russia. Although no Arab government, with the exception of Syria, has openly supported the Russian invasion, occupation and annexation of Ukrainian land, Arab statesmen do not believe that their governments should burn bridges with Moscow over the Ukraine crisis. Although the Gulf states have largely supported UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia’s attack on Ukraine, none have joined Western powers in implementing sanctions against Moscow or other policies aimed at isolating Russia.
In any case, the reconciliation between the two nations is more than welcome and it represents a pragmatic act despite all the animosities that exist. A sustainable agreement on the normalization of Iran-Saudi relations, with a high degree of clarity and commitment, would solve many existing security and political problems in the Middle East (West Asia) region and reduce the rivalry between the two states. Instead of proxy wars, the Iranians and Saudis should compete in other areas such as sustainable development and the economy.