Saudi-Iran detente: What rivals’ dialogue could mean for Middle East

Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace/AP/File
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (center right) accompanies Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on his arrival to Riyadh International Airport in Saudi Arabia, March 31, 2021. A first round of direct talks held in Iraq in April between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran is seen as a positive sign of de-escalation following years of animosity.

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Six years ago Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his father, King Salman, shifted traditionally cautious Saudi Arabia to an aggressive foreign policy confronting Iran and its proxies, including, crucially, in neighboring Yemen.

But in an interview on Saudi state TV this week, Crown Prince Mohammed called for the two nations to overcome differences that have divided the region. “We do not want Iran’s situation to be difficult. On the contrary, we want Iran to grow and prosper,” the crown prince said.

Why We Wrote This

The Saudi-Iran rivalry that has shaped the Middle East may be moving from a not-so-cold war of proxy battles to a cool peace where cooperation is possible. The region stands to benefit.

Some say the stark change in tone reeks of Saudi desperation to wind down its military entanglements; others call it a shrewd reading of the Biden administration’s diplomatic engagement with Iran.

“It didn’t win in Yemen, it didn’t win in Syria, didn’t win in Lebanon,” says F. Gregory Gause, head of the international affairs department at Texas A&M University. “The failure of this more confrontational policy is probably leading to some rethinking in Riyadh, but the new U.S. administration’s outreach to Iran is a driving factor.”

But the conciliatory tone and talks also signal something deeper: an understanding that the two rivals can exist side by side, even if they don’t agree. It is an understanding that could improve lives in the region.

After six years of asymmetric warfare, proxy battles, and mutual recriminations, Saudi Arabia this week offered its bitter regional rival Iran something new: dialogue.

In a televised interview Tuesday, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called for the two nations to overcome differences that have divided the region.

“Iran is a neighboring country, and all we aspire for is a good and special relationship with Iran,” Crown Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de-facto ruler, said in a 90-minute interview on Saudi state TV. 

Why We Wrote This

The Saudi-Iran rivalry that has shaped the Middle East may be moving from a not-so-cold war of proxy battles to a cool peace where cooperation is possible. The region stands to benefit.

“We do not want Iran’s situation to be difficult. On the contrary, we want Iran to grow and prosper,” the crown prince said, noting their joint “interests” to “push the region and the world toward prosperity.”

It was a stark change in tone from someone who three years ago called Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “the new Hitler,” and ruled out dialogue and cooperation with Iran as “appeasement.”

Some say the new tone reeks of Saudi desperation to wind down its military entanglements; others call it a shrewd reading of the Biden administration’s diplomatic engagement with Iran.

But while indicating a Saudi shift away from a confrontational policy toward Iran that has failed to achieve its goals, the conciliatory tone and talks signal something deeper: an understanding that the two rivals can exist side by side, even if they don’t agree.

It is an understanding that could improve lives in the region.

On Thursday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman welcomed a “dialogue-oriented approach,” saying in a statement to Iranian media that “Iran and Saudi Arabia … can enter a new chapter of interaction and cooperation to achieve peace, stability, and regional development by overcoming differences.”

In the Saudi TV interview, citing among other differences Iran’s “negative behavior,” such as its support for armed proxies, Crown Prince Mohammed also said, “We really hope we would overcome them and build a good and positive relationship with Iran that would benefit all.”

Confrontational approach

The olive branch comes weeks after Saudi Arabia and Iran held their first direct talks in years in Iraq, where their spheres of influence collide.

It also comes six years after the crown prince and his father, King Salman, shifted the traditionally cautious, slow-moving kingdom to an aggressive foreign policy confronting Iran and its proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

Crucially, that included launching a military intervention in Yemen. Now Saudi Arabia is desperately looking for a cease-fire there. Its assertiveness has failed to make the kingdom safer.

While missiles fired by Iran-backed Houthis previously landed on the Saudi side of the Yemen-Saudi border, near-daily missile and drone strikes from Yemen now hit airports, military bases, residential neighborhoods, and oil installations deep in the kingdom.

This was epitomized by the Iran-originated drone strikes on Aramco facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in 2019, which pushed 50% of Saudi Arabia’s oil production offline and shook the leadership to its core.

“The confrontational policy with Iran really hasn’t worked,” says F. Gregory Gause, head of the international affairs department at Texas A&M University. “It didn’t win in Yemen, it didn’t win in Syria, didn’t win in Lebanon.”

“The failure of this more confrontational policy is probably leading to some rethinking in Riyadh, but the new U.S. administration’s outreach to Iran is a driving factor” in Riyadh’s new approach.

Amid enmity, mutual interests

But what could the talks and Saudi olive branch mean for a region that has been torn apart by proxy wars and regional competition?

Rather than tackle the core disagreement over Iranian influence and armed proxies in Arab states, the detente, say observers and insiders, will likely focus on immediate areas of mutual interest, such as maritime security.

“If they start getting into a practical dialogue, the most obvious place to start is where other Gulf countries have already begun discussions with Iran: maritime security,” says Hussein Ibish, senior scholar at the Washington-based Arab Gulf States Institute.

The Persian Gulf and the narrow Strait of Hormuz, through which 25% of the world’s oil is shipped, became a flashpoint of tensions from 2018 to 2020 under former President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran.

Dalati Nohra/Reuters/File
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon, Aug. 14, 2020. On Thursday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry welcomed a “dialogue-oriented approach” with Saudi Arabia.

The waters have seen a “shadow war” of acts of sabotage, miscues, and close calls that could have led to military escalations. The United States is spearheading a maritime security arrangement featuring Arab Gulf states that crucially excludes Iran.

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

Yemen peace dividend?

The country that could see the most immediate benefits from dialogue is Yemen, home to the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe, where Iran maintains links to a Houthi movement that has continued a bloody offensive despite a Saudi and United Nations-backed peace offer.

According to Gulf diplomatic sources, Yemen was among the main topics discussed by Saudi Arabia and Iran in Baghdad this month. It is believed that Riyadh is asking Tehran to withdraw support from the Houthis and push it to agree to a cease-fire and negotiations.

Less than 24 hours after the Saudi crown prince’s conciliatory message, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stressed his country’s support for a cease-fire in Yemen and a return to talks as he met with a Houthi spokesman in Oman.

Although Iran has supported the Houthis to drag Saudi Arabia deeper into a military quagmire, observers and analysts agree it has few stakes in Yemen, more than 1,000 miles away from Tehran and separated by multiple land and sea borders, and see the issue as an “acceptable concession.”

“Yemen will be the barometer if there is going to be any serious Iranian-Saudi detente,” says Professor Gause.

It remains unclear, however, whether Tehran holds enough sway over the Houthis, a Yemeni ethnic group with a fierce independent streak.

Path forward in Iraq

After Yemen, the more difficult subjects would be Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria – three Arab countries with significant Shiite populations where Iran has methodically nurtured armed non-state actors loyal to Tehran.

An area of progress may be in Iraq. Over the last three years, Saudi royals have reversed a boycott on post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and have built ties with Shiite political leaders Riyadh saw as more independent from Tehran.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who maintains ties with both Riyadh and Tehran, helped broker the recent talks. Officials hope in Baghdad and other Arab capitals that with the Saudi-Iran dialogue, alongside U.S.-Iran talks, Iraq will be used less as a proxy battleground.

It remains unclear how a detente 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.

Observers and officials agree that, while not a peace, detente and dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran, no matter how modest, could offer a pathway to progress. 

“There is a lot that can be done to get dialogue going to reduce tensions, to mitigate misunderstandings, and for Saudi Arabia and Iran to reassure each other that they can in fact live together,” says Mr. Ibish, “even in competition.”

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