In April 2018, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) called Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “the new Hitler,” and ruled out dialogue and cooperation with Iran as “appeasement.” Just three years later, MBS has changed his tune, saying in a recent television interview that he hopes to “build a good and positive relationship with Iran.” His remarks came amid reports that the two sides were in the early stages of negotiations to deescalate tensions, which both Riyadh and Tehran subsequently confirmed. Such talks represent a significant breakthrough for regional relations, given the long-standing rivalry between the two countries and the absence of diplomatic relations since their ambassadors were recalled five years ago. Against this background, the article will analyze enduring tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, their posture on the ongoing normalization talks, and future prospects of a potential détente in the region.
Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the leading Sunni Muslim power, and Iran, the largest Shia Muslim country, have been locked in a struggle for regional dominance for decades
Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the leading Sunni Muslim power, and Iran, the largest Shia Muslim country, have been locked in a struggle for regional dominance for decades. Their relation rapidly deteriorated over the decades since the 1979 Islamic Revolution ousted a West-backed government in Iran. In early 2016, diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia were broken when Iranian protestors set fire to Riyadh’s embassy in Tehran in protest at the Saudi execution of a Shiite Muslim cleric convicted of encouraging terrorism. In recent years, their rivalry has been exacerbated by proxy wars across the Middle East. Since 2015, a Saudi-led coalition of predominantly Sunni Arab states has backed pro-government forces in Yemen in their fight against the Iran-aligned Houthi rebel movement. Iran has denied sending arms to the Houthis, who have increased missile and drone strikes on Saudi towns and oil facilities. Saudi Arabia has also accused Iran of intervening in Lebanon and Iraq, where Iranian-backed Shia militias have gathered significant military and political power; of assaulting cargo and oil ships in the Gulf; and being behind a missile and drone strike Saudi oil facilities in 2019. Hostilities were further fueled by Riyadh’s support for former United States President Donald Trump’s decision in 2018 to quit the nuclear pact and institute a maximum pressure campaign of sanctions and military threats. The Biden administration has vowed not to allow Tehran to acquire nuclear capabilities but has maintained that returning to the original deal is the best way to ensure such an outcome. Hence, global powers are trying at talks in Vienna to bring the US and Iran back into full compliance with the deal while Saudi Arabia has urged them to reach a stronger accord.
Saudi positive remarks on Iran came as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif emphasized a need for stronger ties between Iran and its Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf during a tour of Qatar, Iraq, Oman and Kuwait. The Saudi royal’s statements were received warmly by Iranian officials who praised the prospect of a rapprochement between the Shiite Islamic Republic and the predominantly Sunni Muslim kingdom. On his side, Iran would greatly benefit from this normalization, especially from an economic point of view given its dire situation exacerbated by US sanctions. Détente could lead to new and enhanced trade relations with the Gulf, thereby boosting Iranian sectors outside of oil and gas regardless of whether its nuclear negotiations with the US result in sanctions relief. Politically, normalization could improve Iran’s standing within the international community, possibly leading to an unfreezing of its foreign assets, less opposition to sanctions rollbacks and engagement with other countries on matters such as information-sharing and capacity-building.
Saudi Arabia, on its side, got to the conclusion that the aggressive policy with Iran has failed on multiple fronts
Saudi Arabia, on its side, got to the conclusion that the aggressive policy with Iran has failed on multiple fronts; it has not won in Yemen, nor in Syria, nor in Lebanon. This has eventually prompted Riyadh to rethink such policy and head towards normalization. However, the driving factor underlying Saudi’s recent conciliatory tones has been deemed to be the US administration’s outreach to Iran in its endeavor to save the Nuclear Deal. Prince Mohammed downplayed any differences with the new US president in a recent interview and has emphasized that the US represents a strategic partner with shared interests for Riyadh. As well as seeking to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, Mr. Biden has withdrawn US support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen, been critical of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, and released a US intelligence report that concluded the crown prince had approved the 2018 murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi albeit the prince has denied any involvement. Such a posture has pointed to the US rethinking its relations with Saudi Arabia. The latter is acutely aware that Washington is on a trajectory to reduce its troop presence in the Gulf. On his part, US President Joe Biden’s top diplomat has said that talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia geared toward easing tensions in the Middle East would be a welcome development, as Washington pursues its diplomacy with Tehran to reinvigorate a multilateral nuclear agreement.
However, while Secretary of State Anthony Bilken said he felt Washington still played a central role in international diplomatic efforts, he also thought it could be even more beneficial for countries to take the initiative themselves. In the past, the US would more often than not be leading or moderating peace talks between disputing factions in the region, but in the case of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the US says it is playing no part, possibly indicating a broader ‘regional fatigue’ on the American side. Indeed, General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the top US general in the Middle East, visited Saudi Arabia recently and said the country is still asking for American military assistance to deter Iran, even as the possibility looms that the U.S. could reduce the number of troops in the region to pivot toward threats in Asia.
Future prospects of such détente are uncertain
Therefore, Gulf countries understand that they need to start figuring out how to contribute to their own security and détente with Iran is one of the only inexpensive ways to do this, it is also one of the only options that is completely under the control of national decision-makers.
Future prospects of such détente are uncertain. Each side is likely to make big requests of the other. On the one hand, Iran aims to end the Yemen war by guaranteeing that the Houthis have a power-sharing role in the government and also wants Saudi Arabia to cease pressuring Iran’s proxies in Iraq and Syria, terminate campaigning for sanctions on Iran, and not improve relations with Israel as numerous other Arab nations have done. On the other hand, the Saudis want to find a solution to stop the Yemen conflict and rein in the provocations of Iran-backed militias in Iraq, which have stroke Saudi targets and conducted drone attacks against the kingdom from Iraq. A Saudi foreign ministry official said that talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran aim to reduce regional tensions, but added it was too early to judge the outcome, and Riyadh wanted to see “verifiable deeds”. One of the main obstacles is set to be the uncertain result of the Iranian presidential elections that will be held next month following the end of Hassan Rouhani’s second and final term. Unrest also continues to play out in the region, including rocket attacks by Iraqi paramilitary groups supportive of Iran against military positions associated with the U.S. presence in the country.
Finally, the two countries have been competing for regional influence for decades and have directly impacted regional countries with their proxy wars. 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 as well as non-political and non-religious cooperation. In conclusion, 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.
The Editor: Raffaella Colletti
Raffaella Colletti is an MA student in Middle Eastern studies at SOAS. She holds an MA in Intelligence and International Security from King’s College London and a BA in Political Science. She gained professional experience in research, risk assessment, and political analysis in international environments including Europol and the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism. Her main research interests lie at the nexus of security/conflict issues and human rights with a specific focus on the Middle East area.