A Difficult Diplomatic Road to Iran-Saudi Normalization

Published July 26th, 2022 - 06:07 GMT
The regional flags

Fluctuations in the last century have accompanied the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In 2016, after Saudi Arabia executed Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran. Riyadh responded by cutting ties with Tehran.

Since April last year, Iraq has hosted five rounds of talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran. After the efforts of the Iraqi government, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi's trips to Saudi Arabia and Iran, and five rounds of negotiations between Iranian and Saudi officials with the mediation of Iraq, this process has been recently accelerated and is entering the level of official meetings.

The clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the last decade is one of the most important geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East. In fact, differences on several levels, identity differences and "ideological, strategic and geopolitical" trends and the emergence of a chain of events such as the competition for the leadership of the Islamic world, disagreements in the field of energy, developments in Syria, the bloody tragedy of Mena in 2015, the execution of leaders of the opposition Shia in Saudi Arabia, fierce arguments between the leaders of the two countries, accusing each other, proxy wars, etc. have been part of the differences and challenges in the relations between the two countries.

Solving the Yemen issue and reducing the threat to Saudi Arabia's security: One of the most important cases of tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen. It seems that the United States does not consider Yemen as a priority, setting a ceasefire as a goal in dealing with the war.  Also, Washington can even get closer to Ansaralah in line with part of its war against terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS, based on the principle of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". In fact, in the case of the continuation of tension between Tehran and Riyadh, Iran's friendly government in Sana'a will be considered an existential threat to Riyadh's security and survival. Although Iran was effective in the ceasefire in Yemen, Ansarullah does not trust Saudi Arabia now.

In the meantime, with the reduction of tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Tehran's role in any reduction of tension and possible agreement between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, and issues such as reducing the threat to Saudi national security, stopping the threats related to shipping in the Bab al-Mandab and the Red Sea, reaching a permanent ceasefire and help to Yemen, etc. can be prominent and positive.

Reducing the conflict over Palestine and Israel:  Although Israel is considered a power in various fields and is recognized by 160 countries, however, 15 Arab countries and 10 Islamic (non-Arab) countries still insist on not recognizing Israel. Iran and Saudi Arabia still do not recognize Israel. Meanwhile, a large part of Saudi Arabia's desire to be close to Israel, directly or indirectly, is related to Iran. Reducing the tension between Tehran and Riyadh can lead to the continuation of Saudi Arabia's approach toward Israel's recognition and affect the reduction of the attractiveness of closer relations with Israel. Also, Riyadh probably hopes that the reduction of tension with Iran can lead to some kind of cooperation on the Palestine issue.


The stability of the Middle East in the era of global geopolitical change: With the reduction of the USA's role in the Middle East in recent years, along with the desire to resolve Iran's nuclear issue, Washington practically wants Riyadh to search for a solution to share interests and accept Iran's share in the region.

Also, despite announcing the continuation of the "strategic partnership between the Kingdom and the United States", the kind of Biden's foreign policy has created mistrust in the relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States and has led Riyadh to think about strengthening multipurpose alliances and establishing balanced relations with other world powers.

In this situation, the conciliatory words of the Saudi officials at the Jeddah summit, inviting Iran to cooperate with Arab countries, avoiding "Arab NATO" and alliance with Israel, Tehran's acceptance of Riyadh's conciliatory approaches, etc., show the attitude of Tehran and Riyadh towards global and regional geopolitical change.  This two-way approach can help the stability of the Middle East in the absence of the presence of superpowers in the region.

Reducing tension with allies of both sides: As Tehran sees the normalization of relations with Riyadh as an opportunity to expand relations with its allies, Riyadh also considers the normalization of relations with Tehran as an opportunity to expand relations with Iran's allies. Saudi Arabia is a rich country with an essential position in the Arab world and the Islamic world, hosting the holiest Islamic places. Therefore, Tehran cannot deny it. As previously, with the severing of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, actors such as Abu Dhabi reduced their diplomatic relations with Tehran and Kuwait recalled its ambassador.

However, trust building between Iran and Saudi Arabia will open opportunities for diplomatic and political-security cooperation and strengthen economic relations between the allies of the two sides. In this regard, the possibility of sending an ambassador to Tehran from the UAE, the possibility speeding up the talks between Iran and Egypt, and the possibility of increasing the relations between Iran and Jordan are considered in this direction.

Also, the reduction of tensions between Tehran and Riyadh will probably lead to the reduction of tensions with Damascus, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Ansarallah. In addition, as in the past, the signing of the security pact played an important role in the relations, now it is possible to provide the basis for a collective security system in the region centered on Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Access to foreign policy goals: After taking office in 2021, new Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi announced his "neighbors first policy" to activate regional diplomacy and strengthen relations with regional countries. In fact, Tehran hopes to dissuade Riyadh from any centrality in the anti-Iranian security coalition by reducing the tension.

In this regard, Faisal Bin Farhan, the Saudi Foreign Minister of Foreign, recently said after the Jeddah meeting that Riyadh "extended a hand of friendship to Iran." These comments were welcomed by Tehran. In fact, reducing tension will increase the international and regional image of both countries. Iran hopes that with the reduction of tension with Riyadh, the inclination toward anti-Iranian positions, plans such as Arab NATO, and the spread of "Iranophobia" will also decrease. The reduction of tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia can have a positive effect on the negotiations to revive the JCPOA and reduce Riyadh's concern about the type of relations between the United States and Iran in the Middle East.

More positive effects for neighbors: Iraq, Qatar, and Pakistan in recent years, by trying to mediate between the two countries of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia, have sought to satisfy their national interests and want the two sides' dialogue to have a positive reflection on the regional conditions. Since 2018, Iraq has been considering expanding relations with its neighbors and building a bridge between Iran and Arab countries to reduce the possible damage and effects of these tensions on Iraq, and Al-Kadhimi was able to turn Baghdad into a center of reconciliation. In fact, the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran can have positive security consequences in the region.

For example, by focusing on common interests such as supporting the territorial integrity of Syria and forming a government in Lebanon, Iran and Saudi Arabia can pay attention to its positive effects on regional countries. Also, many actors, such as Pakistan, see the reduction of tensions between the two countries in the interest of the Muslims. In fact, they will no longer have to choose only Iran or Saudi Arabia.

Expansion of economic, cultural, and sports relations: The plans to strengthen Iran's economic relations with the region, reduce the impact of sanctions on Iran's economy, along with diversifying the oil-dependent economy and the important position of the economy in Saudi Arabia's 2030 vision, can be an opportunity for bilateral cooperation. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are economic powers in the region, but political tensions have caused stagnation in economic relations, trade, tourism, etc.

However, with the normalization of relations between the two countries, the market can be opened to the other side's goods, industries, transit, investment, increase in tourists, especially religious tourists, therapeutic tourists, etc. In other areas, reducing tensions between Tehran and Riyadh can have a variety of effects on cooperation such as religion, Hajj, the establishment of airlines, sports competitions, and so on.

Reducing differences in international organizations: The confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia has continued in OPEC, international organizations, and many other regions of the world. However, the further reduction of tension and the normalization of relations are likely to move towards the search for common interests such as oil price stability, participation in the BRICS group, and reduction of disagreements in OPEC and international organizations and...

The opportunities to resolve Iran-Saudi Arabia disputes are wide. Both actors are trying to restore parts of the lost opportunities for their national interests in the region through interaction. There is no permanent enemy in foreign policy. In the meantime, although it should not be expected that all the problems of Iran and Saudi Arabia will be resolved in the upcoming talks between the foreign ministers in Baghdad, opening embassies, facilitating the travel of pilgrims, and strengthening the process of normalizing relations can be a step in the process of normalization and even increasing it in the medium term.


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