Given the pivotal position Saudi Arabia and Iran occupy in the region, Saudi-Iranian relations understandably receive considerable attention by virtue of the impact their extent of agreement or disagreement can have on the entire region, and even on some international issues. News of talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Baghdad has increased this interest even more, as reports indicate that Saudi and Iranian officials held four rounds of talks in Baghdad over the past few months.
The official announcement of these talks came from Iraqi president Barham Salih last May, who stated that his country has recently hosted more than one round of talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran. For its part, Saudi Arabia confirmed that it held a fourth round of direct talks with Iran on September 21, while Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan described the talks with Iran as being at an “exploratory” stage.
In light of the regional and international significance of this event, this paper aims to shed light on the Saudi-Iranian talks, in addition to identifying the motives and variables present in their context, as well as highlighting the consequences of the success or failure of these talks at the regional level, especially in the areas of tension between the two countries.
An overview of Saudi-Iranian relations
Following the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad by Iranian protesters in January 2016, Riyadh severed relations with Tehran. In fact, apart from a few temporary exceptions, competition has dominated relations between the two countries since Khomeini came to power in Iran after the 1979 revolution, and brought with him an agenda of “exporting the revolution” that most of the region's countries saw as a strategic threat to their stability and security. Events and developments continued to deepen the gap between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as far back as the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988), when the Arab Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia supported Iraq, to current events of the so-called "Arab Spring", the Syrian and Yemeni crises, and competition in the political arenas of Iraq and Lebanon, where Iran has political and security influence, which is seen by Saudi Arabia, and many other states, as interference in the affairs of countries in the region, and as a threat that must be confronted and contained. A notable point of tension between the two has been Riyadh's support for former US President Donald Trump's unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran in 2018 and the ensuing "maximum pressure" campaign against it.
The talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran were of particular interest to King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. In his address to the 76th session of the UN General Assembly, held virtually in New York, King Salman expressed his hope that talks with Iran would lead to “tangible results for building trust” and reviving bilateral cooperation. At the same time, he called on Iran to cease “all kinds of support” for armed groups in the region, referring in particular to the Houthi movement (Ansar Allah) in Yemen. Moreover, it was noted that Saudi state media softened its tone toward Iran. The state-run Al-Ekhbariya TV channel aired a report that cited previous remarks by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in which he said, “All what we ask for is to have a good and distinguished relationship with Iran.”
It is worth noting that former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has stated that his country is willing to restore diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and to exchange of ambassadors between the two countries. However, signs of shifts in Iran's official position toward normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia coincided with the conservative Iranian politician, Ebrahim Raisi, assuming the presidency of the nation.
Iran seemed more optimistic about the benefits of the existing diplomatic dialogue with Saudi Arabia and the results it is expected to achieve. According to Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, Iranian officials expressed a desire to begin a bilateral relationship within a mutually beneficial framework, and that the dialogue is in an “ideal condition”. Iran has suggested reopening the consulates in the Iranian and Saudi cities of Mashhad and Jeddah, respectively, as a sign of goodwill, reports said, but Saudi Arabia refused to "rushing" into this step.
According to the spokesman of the Iranian Customs Administration Ruhollah Latifi, on October 17, a minor trade exchange (less than $40,000) took place between the two countries after years of estrangement during which bilateral trade reached zero. This trade exchange, despite its small size, has a profound political significance, while the value of trade exchange between Riyadh and Tehran amounted to nearly $500 million before relations between the two countries were severed.
Perhaps the statements reported by the Financial Times that Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said that the Kingdom is “serious” about its “friendly” talks with Iran, and his assertion that “what we hear today about the possibility of opening an Iranian consulate in Jeddah and a Saudi consulate in Mashhad confirms beyond any doubt that there is progress in the talks.” It appears that Saudi Arabia's offer of opening an Iranian consulate in Jeddah is intended to register Iranian pilgrims and Umrah performers.
The developments of the Saudi-Iranian relations are not isolated from international shifts. One of those shifts is the US “repositioning”, limiting American involvement in some Middle Eastern issues, and directing its focus and energies toward East Asia, in a declared American response to the Chinese economic and strategic competition.
Iran might seek to reduce disputes with its Gulf and Arab surroundings after a number of variables muddled the Iranian cards, including the Taliban's control of power in Afghanistan, putting Iran in front of new challenges and dangers, as well as the tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan, which defeated Iran’s ally Armenia. Iran's regional environment is "uncomfortable", if not threatening and dangerous. More importantly, Iran hopes that the restoration of relations with Saudi Arabia will also help it restore relations with the United States. As for Saudi Arabia, it has already reconciled with Qatar, took steps to open up cooperation with Russia and China, and improved its relations with Turkey.
Success is for the benefit of all
Conflicts in the region have claimed many lives and consumed a lot of resources. What is becoming more and more clear is that it is time to resolve these conflicts, or to find a solution, with good intentions at the very least, especially since the success of Saudi-Iranian talks will pave the way for directing resources to economic development and confronting the socio-economic challenges of the region.
There is no question about the central importance of Saudi Arabia and Iran in the region. Each of them is a regional, influential, and decisive state, and each of them has allied states or powers in competing axes.
Therefore, having good neighborly relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran would change the face of the region and open the door to hope for all of its people, as well as providing a foundation for stability and security in a region of vital strategic importance to the world. The growing realization of these facts may have provided the basis for initiating the Saudi-Iranian dialogue approach. However, for progress to be made and broader, deeper, and further-reaching outcomes to be achieved, it is still necessary to resolve a number of pressing central conflicts, most notably the Yemeni crisis.
Perhaps a breakthrough in Iranian-Saudi relations could lead to other breakthroughs, such as normal relations between Iran and a number of other Arab countries. For example, Iran wishes to resume relations with Egypt. Therefore, about a month after the foreign ministers of the two countries met on the sidelines of United Nations meetings in New York, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh stated that “progress in relations (between Cairo and Tehran) is in the interest of the region,” linking its development to the talks with Saudi Arabia. This example applies to numerous other Arab countries, and it can also be applied to broader relations, which are difficult to develop due to the crisis in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The United States has, strangely enough, welcomed the Saudi-Iranian talks since they were announced. Possibly, the United States supports Saudi efforts to get Iran to stop interfering in the affairs of other countries, while waiting for a “solution” to revive the nuclear deal.
Indeed, Iran is responding to that, because it needs to reduce international isolation in order to alleviate the difficult economic conditions the Iranian economy is facing, and to facilitate reaching an understanding with the Americans. Iran also realizes that a breakthrough in the relationship with Saudi Arabia would be beneficial for talks with America and the international community, especially since the next round of nuclear deal talks will take place at the end of November. The Iranians also believe that a breakthrough in their relationship with Saudi Arabia will prevent Israel from achieving further “gains of normalization” after signing “peace agreements” with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, in a way that Iran perceived as giving Israel a more prominent role against it. However, the Saudi position remains the central and fundamental point in the entire process. This is closely related to security in the Gulf, and it requires the attention of all those concerned with international trade and maritime navigation in the Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz. Saudi Arabia thus raises the issue of security in the region. Additionally, the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran means curbing “unwanted” interferences, including Israeli interference. In this context, Haaretz said: “Should the talks between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic actually end in agreement and normalization, it will be the last chapter of the anti-Iran alliance on which Israel built mountains and hills and even considered itself as an unofficial member.”
The crises of Yemen and Lebanon at the forefront
It can be said that the progress in the talks has given reason for optimism, but enthusiasm for relatively quick results of the Iranian-Saudi talks appears to have declined after what can be called the "George Kordahi statements crisis," when the now Lebanese Minister of Information, George Kordahi, described the war in Yemen as “absurd” and the Arab intervention there as an “aggression”, before he was assigned. Some Lebanese parties also believe that the Tayouneh events, during which Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces engaged in an armed confrontation, and Riyadh’s decision to ban vegetables and fruits imports from Lebanon due to "drugs smuggling", come in a context that extends beyond the event itself.
In fact, Saudi Arabia indicated that the recent dispute with Lebanon's government and what went before are due in part to the fact that Hezbollah controls the keys to Lebanon's decision making. And as a result of the economic and social crisis in Lebanon, the severity of the “Kordahi crisis” has reached an unprecedented level.
As a result, the Saudi response to Kerdahi's statements was to withdraw its ambassador from Lebanon and request that the Lebanese ambassador leave Saudi Arabia, so did Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE and the internationally recognized Abd Rabou Mansoor Hadi’s government of Yemen. Some view this as part of the competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Lebanon, and the Saudi rejection of the role of Hezbollah, which, in Saudi estimation, controls the Lebanese state, not just the statements themselves, which could have been resolved through diplomatic means. Therefore, Saudi Arabia criticizes Lebanese officials, all the way down to the old allies of the Future Movement, for not countering its destructive role, which is a confrontation basically carried out by the Lebanese Forces led by Samir Geagea.
As well as this Lebanese obstacle, there is the obstacle of a Saudi-Iranian conflict on the issues of Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. In fact, the Syrian obstacle has largely receded owing to Saudi, Gulf and Arabs in general acceptance of Syria's return to the "Arab fold" and the Arab League, while the issue of Yemen is still flaring and intensifying with the language of iron and fire. Clearly, Saudi Arabia views the Yemen crisis as one of the most sensitive national security matters. Hence lies the dilemma.
The Yemen crisis comes first?
Saudi Arabia first intervened in the Yemeni crisis by leading an Arab coalition called for by the Hadi’s government, in 2015. Six months earlier, the Houthis, who are supported by Iran, had seized Yemen's capital, Sana'a, in September 2014. Considering the importance of Yemen to Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni issue played a major role in the negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
As a result of the Yemen crisis, and after two years since the Yemen war broke out, Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, stated in 2017 that Riyadh and Tehran do not have any points of agreement for dialogue and understanding. However, after the Arab coalition entered its seventh year of fighting without restoring the legitimate government in Yemen, Riyadh found that the security of the Gulf had been compromised and that there was room for dialogue with its opponent in Yemen away from the extreme demands of both sides. Therefore, Saudi Arabia adopted the approach of flexibility and goodwill gestures, including extending Iran's exception in the OPEC Plus agreement to cut production, which prevented Iran's oil revenues from being impacted by US sanctions. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia provided significant assistance to Iran by making voluntary cuts in its oil production by one million barrels per day, resulting in Iran increasing its production of oil.
While Saudi Arabia has been trying to end the conflict in Yemen, which has exposed its vital facilities to drone and missile attacks, the Houthis have responded by escalating in the strategic Marib front and by continuing to launch missiles and drone attacks on Saudi soil.
In fact, Saudi Arabia is seeking a solution in Yemen that includes the Houthis, through a political settlement based on the Gulf initiative, UN Security Council resolutions, and the outcomes of the Yemeni national dialogue.
Nevertheless, it appears that the Houthis group, backed by Iran, will continue to try to control Marib, to be able to come to the negotiating table with a card that they paid a heavy price for, and this is what Saudi Arabia is trying to prevent. Therefore, if one were to describe the major obstacles to the success of the talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Yemeni crisis would be the first and most difficult one, while the issue of Lebanon is not up for discussion at the moment. In fact, it is difficult for rounds of talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran to result in significant understandings without first resolving the deep and strategic dispute over Yemen.
With all the hope for the success of the talks, and despite all the obstacles, the region can achieve breakthroughs in the near future, because international and regional transformations have imposed logic and facts that tend to resolve differences instead of escalating conflicts.