On October 20 prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, Saudi Foreigner Minister met in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) with Washington's Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley to discuss the issue of nuclear talks with Iran. Joint actions to stop Iranian support for groups supposedly threatening regional security was also discussed. Prince Faisal warned of the “dangerous acceleration” of Iranian nuclear activities last week. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh said that ongoing talks with Saudi Arabia about the normalization of diplomatic relations have been “cordial” and have been taking place “in a friendly and positive atmosphere”. The obvious contrast signals the complexity of the current situation.
In another positive development, last week the Republic of Iran resumed its exports to the Kingdom for the first time since bilateral trade was stopped last year. In the last Iranian fiscal year which ended on 20 March 2021, trade activity between the two countries had reached zero. This is clearly a warming of the Iran-Saudi Arabia relationship. However, tensions remain.
Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been pursuing a proxy conflict for a long time, often described as the Middle Eastern cold war. Even though it was unthinkable until very recently, negotiations have been held - a fourth round of talks took place in late September - and many expect a normalization announcement soon. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh stated earlier this month that these talks, which started secretly in April, have been going in the right direction, but so far they have been kept private by both sides.
An Iranian trade official has recently said that there might be trade opportunities in Saudi Arabia for Iranian businessmen. The Agency France Press has quoted an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Riyadh really wants to end its five-year quarrel and both sides might have already agreed on reopening their consular offices.
Bilateral relations between the two countries ceased in 2016 when some Iranian militia men stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. This in turn was a response to the Saudi execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia activist.
There is an important religious angle here: Saudi Arabia is often seen as the leading Sunni power, while Iran would be the leading Shia actor. Interestingly, in terms of foreign policy, many Islamic nations in the Middle East have been aligned to one of these two powers according to this religious divide. Syria, for example, does not have a Shia majority, but is ruled by President Bashar al-Assad (a member of a heterodox Shia sect) who counts on Shia militias – including Iranian-backed Hezbollah - to fight mostly Sunni rebels. That is why the Tehran-Riyadh rivalry sometimes appears to be almost essential.
Over the past two years, however, some steps have been taken by both countries towards improving their relations, albeit slowly.
Returning to the 2015 deal - the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) - is what is being discussed now. Saudi Arabia had criticized the JCPA for not addressing the issue of Iran’s missile programme, and its proxies in the region. In 2018, former US President Donald Trump withdrew from this deal and then re-imposed tough sanctions on Tehran. Riyadh supported Trump’s decision. Afterwards, Iran resumed its uranium enrichment activities. Joe Biden, in its turn, has signaled he wants to negotiate with Iran a return to compliance with the 2015 deal.
Meanwhile, the US has been focusing on East Asia in its efforts to counter China. The Quad, and even AUKUS are good examples of such a shift. Another surprising development was Washington’s decision regarding its stance on the Iranian-backed Houthis - it ceased to consider them a terrorist organization. Biden also suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Some experts even speculated that such moves were a message to Tehran indicating Washington’s good will to negotiate on the Iranian nuclear program.
For the European powers and the US, navigation in the Gulf has always been of uttermost strategic importance and it remains so - it is essential for oil transportation, and thus any conflict in the region that threatened such freedom of navigation would invite US intervention. Therefore, from an American perspective, a Saudi-Iranian “power share” in the region (albeit tense) would be mostly welcome.
Saudi outreach to Iran is also largely due to a series of Iranian small victories. Be it in Syria, Lebanon or Palestine, Tehran today has more political influence in the Levant and abroad than Riyadh does. Moreover, the Saudi position in Yemen has weakened. The Kingdom has simply failed to defeat the Iranian-backed Houthis.
The implications of a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement are mind-blowing. In such a scenario, if the rest of the Arab world followed Riyadh, then this would change the face of the Middle East. It is a complex equation, though. The Abraham Accords themselves in large part have been made possible thanks to Saudi endeavors in encouraging their Arab regional partners and also sort of giving the green light. The Saudi Kingdom is perceived by Iran as doing Israel’s bidding in the region and Iran is seen by Israel as the greatest threat it faces. This is not going to change in the foreseeable future.
One can expect, however, mutual concessions pertaining to a number of points. This would be in line with a series of Saudi pragmatic moves concerning foreign policy, such as seeking to improve relations with Turkey, ending Qatar’s embargo, and even making some good will gestures towards Syria. As for Iran, Riyadh certainly would like Tehran to exert its influence upon the Houthis to the benefit of Saudi Arabia. In return, the Kingdom could offer the Islamic Republic its acceptance of reviving the nuclear deal, and perhaps even compromising on a future political role for the Houthis in a pacified Yemen.
Therefore, although the Iran-Saudi Arabia talks do have the potential to build a future rapprochement, considering all the tensions involved and decades of mutual mistrust, it would be too optimistic or even naive to hope for a quick and simple reconciliation.
Finally, one cannot also help but to notice the Western hypocrisy regarding the Iranian nuclear program. On August 4, 2020 the Wall Street Journal reported that Western authorities were concerned about nuclear cooperation between Saudi Arabia and China related to building a facility for extracting so-called yellowcake from uranium ore - a vital ingredient for nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons as well. This fact however is rarely discussed.
Uriel Araujo is a researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts.