Saudi-Iran May Set Aside Their Rivalry For Diplomacy

Published October 2nd, 2021 - 07:33 GMT
Saudi-Iran rivalry maybe put to good use
Saudi-Iran rivalry (Shutterstock)

After nearly six years of frozen diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran things could be changing. Both Tehran and Riyadh seems to want to put the “freeze” behind them and open up a new chapter.

Although in a checkered kind of way, the two states want a new set of relations to prove both rival powers in the region are up to their great power status in the Gulf and the Middle East.

While it’s true there are many files that are still to resolve - the Yemeni conflict, regional proxies support and Iran’s nuclear ambitions which are still to be debated and reviewed on the world level vis-à-vis the United States – there is a new sense of realism that is being realized among Saudi Arabia and Iran that things have got to change.

This maybe have been helped by the changing international environment of course and the onset of the American administration with the new Democratic president Joe Biden in the White House. He took over from Donald Trump who was an openly pro-Riyadh supporter, something which may have hardened the Saudi stance towards Iran.

Enter Iraq

All this no more! With the latest and recent meetings between Saudi and Iranian officials many are interpreting this as all set and match.  The latest meeting is the fourth to be held between the two sides in 2021 about bilateral relations and developments despite the rhetoric occasionally heard from the two capitals.

This dialogue exchange is the first time the two sides started talking continuously since 2016 when relations were cut between the two countries because Iranians ransacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and the Kingdom’s Consulate in Mashhad. Relations reached a boiling point because Riyadh executed a top Shia cleric by the name of Nimr Al Nimr which worsened relations between the two sides.

Leaving aside the details, the negotiations currently going on has started on 9 April this year and continued thereafter on May 10 and later. Saudi and Iranian officials have sat together four times, the last being towards the end of August and more “private” talks are under way. The first dialogue was held with the blessing of Hassan Rohani, the now ex-Iranian president and “continual talking” is now encouraged by the new president in Tehran Ebrahim Raisi.

It would be surprising to learn that the “Riyadh-Tehran talking initiative” had been instituted from Baghdad with the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustapha Kadhimi taking the lead in bringing the two together and allowing the space and the leeway for their officials to sit, talk and explore different options for the reactivation of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Through these meetings and dialogues, Baghdad has proven to be an invaluable party to support mediation among all sides. The government is proving itself to be a great link between all parties: Domestic, regional and international. Premier Kadhimi is showing – and albeit successfully – that he can talk to both the pro-Iranian parties inside Iraq while talking to Tehran and still widen his dialogue to the Saudis and Riyadh as a genuine mediator and facilitator. It’s quite diplomacy that appears to be working.

While nothing has come out of the talks just yet, the fact there is a dialogue proves that both parties are for the first time interested in resolving long-outstanding issues between the two capitals. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, also termed as the effective Saudi ruler had long said he wants a diplomatic breakthrough between the two countries.

Similarly, his father King Salman has recently, through his message to the annual UN General Assembly, extended an open hand to Iran, saying he hoped the current talks would lead to “tangible results” between Riyadh and Tehran. However, he warned Iran about its nuclear program, its continuing uranium enrichment and its international obligations through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This somehow dampened the “positivity” about the “stop-go” talks but this is diplomacy.

However, King Salman overlooks the fact that it was Trump who walked out of the 2015 Iran nuclear treaty in 2018 and slammed sanctions on Iran while further complicating the issue with the United States and the Biden Administration who are in the process of renegotiating the US entry but are awaiting renewed commitments by Tehran.

Because of this point, Iran is taking its time for it too, believes in quiet diplomacy for after all it was Washington that first “muzzled” out of the deal.

A Saudi card

Where does Saudi Arabia fit into this process it is difficult to fathom but Iran believes talking to Saudi Arabia in the long-run would enable her to use Riyadh as a pressure tool in any future set up relating to nuclear negotiating with Washington. Its early days with the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying the United Stated won’t keep waiting for Iran to make up its mind about the JCPOA deal.

But this maybe international politics being played at the highest stakes. What seems to be clear however, and regardless of the complications of a nuke deal with Iran and the complexities of renegotiating another accord that would itself bring up all sorts of other complications, the fact of the matter, is the Biden administration wants a more peaceful, quite Middle East while he turns his attention to China, Europe and possibly Australia.

And in this regard it can be Saudi that Washington will bless the new Saudi-Iran rapprochement that is likely to get off the ground regardless of when will that be. Talking is always a better option than the cold freeze. However, and aside from Iraq, many are praising the potential relaunch of relations between two great regional powers, not only for political and diplomatic reasons but domestic economic ones.

And this is the case both for Riyadh and Tehran as the former would stop looking over its shoulders for Houthi drone missiles fired at its oil fields and airbases from north Yemen into Saudi Arabia. Mohammed ben Salman wants to drop the external angle and concentrate on his 2030 Vision to further unleash the breaks to modernize Saudi Arabia.

This is what the new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi wants as well, to cut back on Iran’s foreign commitments and adventures while focusing on improving the worsening domestic angle in Iran. It is these two aspects that maybe pushing the two sides into a more positive era.

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