What's Next After the Five Rounds of Saudi-Iranian Dialogue?

Policy Analysis | This analysis addresses the increasing indicators to the imminent convening of the sixth round Saudi-Iran talks after they were suspended for nearly a year due to the Iraqi government’s desire to complete its role as a bridge to bring regional destinations closer, especially after the success of the second round of the Baghdad Conference held in Jordan.

by Mukhtar Shuaib Abdullah
  • Release Date – Dec 26, 2022

The second round of Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership held in Jordan between Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan and his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was followed by a tweet in which Farhan confirmed his “readiness to continue dialogue with Iran.” 

This signals the possibility that a sixth round of talks between the two countries will be held soon. After the first five rounds were held in Baghdad beginning in December 2019, a sixth round scheduled for September 2022 was suspended due to the political crisis in Iraq, which was hosting the talks. That crisis extended until the formation of the new Iraqi government headed by Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani in October 2022. However, the talks remained suspended over Iranian allegations of Saudi interference in the country’s protests.

Experts believe that the second round of the Baghdad Conference, hosted by Jordan, will push for resuming the Saudi-Iran talks. In addition, the dialogue was a space for discussion between Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad Shia al-Sudani and Iranian officials during al-Sudani’s visit to Tehran in November 2022, as well as during his visit to Riyadh for the 2022 Arab states-China summit, where he met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on December 9.

The talks, which took place under Iraqi auspices during the tenure of former Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, tackled how to reduce tension between the two countries and restore their diplomatic relations; visions for settling issues regarding Yemen, Syria and Lebanon; addressing armed militias supported by Iran in the region; the Iranian nuclear file; ways to preserve the security of the Gulf region and halt the arms race in it; and bilateral cooperation regarding pilgrimage, trade, and other issues.

The last two rounds produced a signed 10-point memorandum of understanding (MoU) that represented a major breakthrough in the crisis between the two countries. Among other agreements, the MoU includes Iran and Saudi Arabia opening consulates in Jeddah and Mashhad, respectively; resolving the Yemeni crisis; dealing with Iranian pilgrims; cooperation in trade, combating crime, and terrorism; addressing the situation in Lebanon and Syria; and achieving security and stability in the Gulf. .

As the second round of the Baghdad Conference brings the talks back into focus, observers raise many questions. What does each side want from the other? What are the influencing factors? What are the obstacles and expectations?


Two Contradictory Visions

The talks addressed several procedural issues related to the level of representation, progressing from experts and employees to security and diplomatic personnel. By the fifth round there was high-level representation from both sides: the head of Saudi’s intelligence service, Khalid bin Ali Al Humaidan, and the secretary-general of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani. This senior level of representation reflected positive developments in addressing the issues under discussion, although the two parties differed in their assessments of the progress made.  The dialogue as positive, according to statements from Iran Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian while Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan described the same dialogue as a good development without significant progress.

It is expected that the sixth round will involve undersecretaries or deputy foreign ministers from the two countries as well as the leaders of their intelligence services. Restoring this dialogue was an area of discussion between Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad Shia al-Sudani and Iranian officials during his visit to Tehran, as well as during al-Sudani’s visit to Riyadh and his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In fact, there are divergences in the two countries’ visions on addressing the issues under discussion. These divergences continue to hinder restoring diplomatic relations.

1- Iran saw the need to exchange consulates and return diplomats as a first step to improve relations in parallel with the continuation of talks. Riyadh, on the other hand, believes that there is no need to rush. Riyadh’s priority is to first solve the main issues causing such tension and conflict that led to the severance of diplomatic relations, not vice versa.

Tehran, meanwhile, argues that the issues under discussion are lengthy and complex; they cannot be easily settled and can be dealt with separately after the exchange of diplomatic representation and the opening of the embassies of the two countries. It argues that discussing major issues at higher political levels will facilitate practical solutions that will endure.

2- Although the talks focused on the Yemeni file, the two sides could not agree on a road map to resolve the crisis there more than 16 months since the first talks began. Riyadh asked Tehran to stop its military and political support for the Houthi group “Ansar Allah” in Yemen and to push forward to reach a political solution to the crisis there based on the Gulf initiative announced by Riyadh in late March 2022, which includes a comprehensive ceasefire throughout the country and the start of consultations between the Yemeni factions under the auspices of the United Nations, along with the outcomes of the national dialogue and U.N. Security Council resolutions. Riyadh, in return, said it will open Yemen’s Sana’a International Airport to some regional and international destinations, as well as ease restrictions on imports, especially related to food and energy.

3- One of the main issues of the talks is Tehran’s foreign policy, especially in choosing between its stated goal of creating a regional security framework and its regional behavior based on supporting armed groups in countries such as Iraq and Yemen.

In theory, there is consensus between the two states regarding a security framework, including the necessity to ensure maritime security and freedom of navigation since all countries in the region depend on those seas for their energy exports. This consensus will increase if Tehran and the five international powers reach a revival of the nuclear agreement that will renew its energy exports, especially since the withdrawal of former U.S. President Donald Trump was met with a policy of “maximum resistance” that prompted Iran, according to several sources, to attack or facilitate attacking naval targets and oil infrastructure.

Beyond maritime security, Tehran’s preference for a regional security framework may be questionable as it adopts an advanced defense strategy that includes support for some armed groups with “vertical” ties to it. This point lies at the heart of the talks since Saudi Arabia sees Iranian behavior as destabilizing many countries in the region, which has negative repercussions on the security of the Arab Gulf. Any return to diplomacy between the two countries should determine Tehran’s position on the main and crucial issues of the course of the talks.

4- Any understanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran requires reaching a formula for a final solution to Iran’s most recent nuclear and ballistic programs that would lead to the development of a nuclear weapon and, thus, launch an arms race in the region. The Saudi Crown Prince has already noted this point. “The Kingdom will do the same as soon as possible,” he said, referring to whether Iran develops nuclear weapons.

In principle, Riyadh does not oppose the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) it reached in 2015 with Germany and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). But Tehran did not view the JCPOA’s restrictions and controls as sufficient to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon. 

Saudi Arabia, in fact, viewed JCPOA as a U.S. yellow light for Iran’s regional behavior. Therefore, Riyadh welcomed former U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from JCPOA in 2018. Riyadh may not be a direct party to the 2015 Vienna negotiations, but it has determined its position of its outcomes by accepting or rejecting them.

However, the talks play an important role in reducing tensions and sparing the two countries from clashes between them. This indicates that these talks began after U.S. evidence emerged about Tehran’s involvement in the terrorist attacks that targeted Saudi oil infrastructure in September 2019.

At the request of then President Donald Trump, the first round of talks seeking to defuse tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia was mediated by former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in late September 2019. Kahn, who said he had then spoken with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, told the media he was “trying and mediating” a peaceful settlement. 


Factors Affecting the Talks 

First, the international and regional welcome of these talks by the United States, the European Union countries, Russia, Arab countries, and the United Nations encourages the two parties to continue negotiating to bridge the gap between them. Moscow’s interest in the Iranian-Arab rapprochement is to keep the United States away from the region. To that end, Russia has already put forward an initiative to end the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. 

Washington, meanwhile, sees the rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh as an opportunity to end the Yemeni crisis. It is encouraging Tehran to make the concessions required for the success of Vienna JCPOA negotiations. And recent regional and international developments convinced Iran and the Arab countries of the need to put disputes aside and adopt the language of understanding and coordination for the benefit of the entire region, especially since the current political will of the two sides prefers negotiating since each has an ambitious agenda towards its people, especially Saudi Arabia in light of its Vision 2030.

Iran is also in need of internal achievements that satisfy public opinion, which is witnessing a series of protests, the latest of which came after the death of 22-year-old  Mahsa Amini during her detention at a security center affiliated with the Morality Police for violating the rules of Islamic dress. The protests have expanded to include demands related to the standard of living and economic conditions. Therefore, Iran urgently needs the legitimacy of achievement in order to preserve the stability of the state and the regime, especially since the state’s conspiracy rhetoric and blaming outside forces proved ineffective.

Another motive that reinforces this trend is the Iranian conviction, expressed more than once, that raising the level of diplomatic representation among the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia and Iran, will limit Israel’s influence in the region, enhance Tehran’s position among its Arab neighbors, and open the door to the development of Iranian relations with all Arab countries, especially Morocco, Bahrain, Sudan, and Djibouti.

Second, Iran-backed armed groups seek to obstruct any progress in these talks, as they began with the announcement that such talks are positive, while still in discourse escalation against Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, in order to achieve several goals, including:

- Tehran often uses armed groups to send messages, escalate pressure on the opposing party, or lift the state of crisis, as happened with the United States during the Vienna negotiations when American bases were attacked by drones several times. Tehran uses this tactic to induce the opposing side to make concessions or cave in to Iranian demands.

Riyadh is aware of such tactics, as the Kingdom has previously been threatened by Iran-linked militant groups. In the face of this escalation, Riyadh officially raises the level of its relations with Iraq in its overall response to the threats issued by these groups and factions. This is confirmed by the joint military exercises witnessed by the two countries in June 2022.

- These armed groups seek to exit any formal settlement with Iran, whether with Saudi Arabia, the United States, or even within the JCPOA, especially since Tehran’s support for armed groups associated is a file on the tables of multiple negotiations and talks. Negotiations and talks success would harm the sources of support and funding for these groups.

Third, the success in reaching an agreement in the Vienna negotiations regarding the Iranian nuclear file will determine the future of Gulf-Iranian relations in general and Saudi Arabia in particular. Should the Vienna negotiations succeed in reaching an agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear capability, preventing it from developing a nuclear weapon and imposing restrictions on it in its regional policy, then this may lead to encouraging the Saudi and Iranian parties to achieve an agreement between themselves, at least by restoring diplomatic relations and continuing talks to bring views closer to settle crises and regional issues.

Fourth, the ability of the Iraqi mediator to continue playing this role, augmented by overcoming the political stalemate that has been going on in Iraq for a year, by appointing al-Sudani as the new head of government. This is evident in al-Sudani’s efforts to conclude an openness path and approach balanced relations between Iraq and neighboring countries, as well as the region. This increases the chances of Baghdad hosting the sixth round of talks.

Fifth, the outcome of the protests in Iran will determine the prospects for the return of talks, especially after the protests resurrected the issue of declining trust between the two countries after Tehran accused the countries of the region of fueling the flames of an angry Iranian public. The commander-in-chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hossein Salami, accused Saudi Arabia of interfering in Iranian affairs and the recent protests, along with other countries such as the United States, Great Britain, and Israel. Experts believe that the escalatory discourse from Iran is represented by its allegations of Saudi and regional interference backing the protests Iran, especially as the Wall Street Journal issued a report that Saudi and American officials exchanged intel about an “imminent Iranian attack” on Saudi targets. This threat will be one of the driving factors for the resumption of this dialogue. 

The current situation is similar to the escalatory rhetoric between the two countries following the terrorist attacks that targeted the Saudi oil infrastructure on September 30, 2019. Thus, experts expect that the sixth round will begin soon due to the need for the Iranian and Saudi parties to resolve outstanding crises between them. In this context, it is expected that the sixth round will focus on security issues, especially those related to Iran’s demands and allegations regarding the cessation of Saudi support—especially its media support—for internal protests in Iran in exchange for Saudi Arabia asking Iran to withdraw military support for the Houthi Ansar Allah group in Yemen and work to push the group to return to the international truce that ended without an extension so far.

Therefore, both Riyadh and Tehran have an urgent need and direct interest to resume these talks to reduce the pressure they each face: a domestic crisis in Iran and the Yemeni crisis for Saudi Arabia.

For now, the talks are not expected to make a major breakthrough in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran due to the complexities of the positions between the two countries on crucial issues, and the high level of Iran’s capacity with which it enters into any negotiations with any party. This is especially true since Iran relies on two tracks in negotiations: one is in the negotiation room and the other is the complex practices on the field. 

Both tracks naturally contradict one another, but the negotiation process between the two countries will continue unabated. Although such negotiations have not yet produced clear results, the dialogue will continue, if only for the sake of dialogue.

*This study expresses its author's opinion. Strategiecs is under no liability resulting from the author's position or the opinion in terms of security, political, economic, social, or other issues. In addition, such opinions do not necessarily reflect the Strategiecs's position and/or point of view.

Mukhtar Shuaib Abdullah

An expert on Gulf affairs