Saudi Arabia and Iran reportedly held a significant diplomatic meeting in Iraq in early April, which was itself the product of a series of earlier, more low-key and low-level meetings. The two sides are said to be planning a follow-up soon. And Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, one of the Arab leaders most vociferously critical of Iran, said in a major televised interview that his government seeks “good relations” with Iran and is “working with our partners in the region to overcome our differences with Iran.” The talks in Iraq reportedly focused on the situation in Yemen, but the details are probably less significant than the development of such a dialogue.
Iran’s other major Gulf antagonist, the United Arab Emirates, has, for complex reasons of its own, moved even more swiftly and dramatically to develop a new opening to Tehran, including a foreign ministerial summit, which was reportedly about the coronavirus pandemic. Saudi Arabia, which is much larger and more powerful, was always likely to move more cautiously than the UAE, but this opening is hardly a surprise or abrupt reversal. Many factors have shaped the evolution of Riyadh’s calculations regarding dialogue with Tehran.
A Dialogue Long in the Making
For more than two years, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been laying the groundwork for, and slowly inching toward, a fledgling negotiation. Well over a year ago, Saudi Arabia began significant, if low-key, diplomatic overtures to Iran. This was in the midst of the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran by the administration of former President Donald J. Trump. But it began precisely because Iran’s low-intensity, often deniable, military campaign against U.S. sanctions, under the rubric of “maximum resistance,” was leading to unmanageable tensions.
Saudi Arabia did not seek a U.S. war with Iran, let alone a conflict involving the Saudis themselves. Like the UAE, Israel, and others, Saudi Arabia had grave doubts about the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and global powers. And Riyadh welcomed Trump’s pressure campaign against Iran and his insistence on a new agreement that would deal with Tehran’s missile development program and support for proxy forces in the Arab world. Yet, most senior Saudi leaders believed that a vast conflict in their immediate environment, which would almost certainly directly threaten Saudi Arabia itself, was not in their interests.
Such concerns intensified following the September 14, 2019 missile and drone attacks on Saudi Aramco facilities widely believed to have been conducted by Iran. Not only did the attacks show Saudi Arabia’s vulnerability, the use of precision guidance was technically very impressive. Few of the projectiles failed to hit their marks, and planners had chosen cannily what to strike and when in order to do maximum damage. So, Saudi Arabia’s decision to diplomatically engage with Iran, in part, arose from a genuine desire to avoid conflict and real anxiety about how dangerous tensions had already become.
Another key factor was the growing sense that because of U.S. sanctions and other pressure, Iran’s relative regional power had suffered significant setbacks. Put in the context of the nuclear agreement, Tehran is simply not the force in 2021 that it was in 2015. Its economy is badly damaged. It lost several crucial operatives, especially Quds Force commander Qassim Suleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone attack in Iraq on January 3, 2020. Iran has been subjected to a large series of often powerful blows by Israel, which appears to have deep intelligence penetration in Iran, especially against its nuclear program and militia proxies in Syria and Iraq. While it remains powerful in those two neighboring Arab states, Iran’s strategic and political position in Syria and Iraq has declined somewhat in recent years with increasing pressure from internal and external forces seeking to weaken Tehran’s influence. Iran has seen its relations with Turkey deteriorate somewhat, while key antagonists Israel and the UAE move closer together in part in order to coordinate opposition to Iran.
These and many other developments have convinced Saudi leaders to view Iran as less threatening, albeit formidable, than it was a few years ago. Iran has long publicly pressed for negotiations with Arab neighbors and even the development of a broad regional security framework. But until recently, Iran’s Gulf Arab rivals, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, feared that meant the acceptance of an outsized, irrational, and dangerous Iranian regional role. Since the end of 2019, an open dialogue with Iran has become less risky.
As a result, in addition to considerable quiet diplomacy behind the scenes, Iran and Saudi Arabia signaled their interest in a renewed conversation through a variety of more public symbolic messages. Particularly, a pair of jointly authored articles, by Iran’s former nuclear spokesman, Hossein Mousavian, who is close to the political faction that includes Iran’s president and foreign minister, and Abdulaziz Sager, a Saudi scholar and analyst with strong connections to the royal court and King Salman bin Abdulaziz, called for precisely such a dialogue. These articles, the first in The New York Times in May 2019 and the second in The Guardian in January, strongly signaled a willingness on both sides to communicate more openly.
There are several obvious starting places for a Saudi-Iranian dialogue. Maritime security in the waters of the Gulf itself is probably the least onerous lift. Both countries and most of their local allies are energy exporters that rely on freedom of navigation and safe passage through these waters. Iran’s concentration on attacking maritime targets as part of its “maximum resistance” was driven by the desire to assert Tehran’s de facto right to be part of a maritime security framework in the Gulf. Iran had felt excluded from this and wanted to send the message that, if it could not sell its oil because of sanctions, its neighbors would eventually not be able to sell their oil either because of Iran’s disruption of maritime security. But, ultimately, all parties in the region have real interest in freedom of navigation and commerce.
The war in Yemen is also a potential subject of agreement, which is why the initial talks in Iraq focused on this. The level of Iran’s engagement and influence with the Houthis is disputed. But it is clear that while ending the Yemen war has become a major priority for both Saudi Arabia and the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr., such an outcome would not necessarily be contrary to Iranian interests. Because Tehran’s relationship with the Houthis is relatively distant compared to the fairly vertical integration of groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon or the pro-Iranian Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, the Yemen conflict and Iran’s role can be addressed without directly confronting the most intractable obstacle to a wide-scale rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia: Iran’s network of substate sectarian militia groups in the Arab world.
There is a profound contradiction between Iran’s professed aim of developing a regional security framework with neighboring states and its primary means of projecting power in that neighborhood – the cultivation, expansion, and empowerment of these substate militia groups. Ultimately, Iran will have to choose between the development and success of the state-based regional security framework it professes to seek and a militia network that promotes instability in states such as Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. This contradiction lurks at the center of the Iranian-Saudi rivalry and is a key part of competition over spheres of influence and regional power. But crucial issues such as maritime security and even resolving the Yemen war can be addressed before these core, irreducible differences are finally confronted.
For years Saudi Arabia has recognized it is stuck in a quagmire in Yemen. Saudi forces and local Yemeni fighters loyal to the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in the conflict in the north of the country have steadily lost ground in recent years. The Houthi rebels are engaged in a prolonged effort to seize control of the last major government stronghold in the north, Marib. If they lose Marib, Riyadh and the Hadi government will have been effectively defeated in northern Yemen, and the Saudi-led coalition will essentially have to prevent a generalized Houthi takeover.
Saudi Arabia has wanted to find a formula to end its intervention in the country. However, the Houthis have shown little interest in coming to any political solution that could facilitate a Saudi withdrawal – the war has gone very well for them, and they believe they can gain further ground through more fighting. In addition to a political solution among Yemeni factions, for its withdrawal, Saudi Arabia would require significant assurances that the security of the kingdom itself would not continue to be threatened by the Houthis or others from Yemeni territory.
The thaw with Iran is significant for Yemen policy because Iran and its network of nonstate actors, primarily Hezbollah, are the main external supporters of the Houthis. It’s unclear how much influence Tehran can exercise over their most significant decision making, but Iran and some of its client groups could try to extend the conflict by encouraging Houthi intransigence or offering increased support and other inducements.
Iran has benefited significantly from Saudi Arabia being bogged down in a conflict the outcome of which is not crucial to Tehran’s vital national interests. The Saudis hope that an easing of tensions with Iran could see Tehran facilitating an end to the Yemen war or, at least, not acting as a spoiler.
The Biden Factor
Because of its closeness to the Trump administration and anger among Democrats over the Yemen war, human rights abuses, and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, Saudi Arabia needed to take significant steps to shore up damaged relations with many leading Democrats in Washington. By ending the boycott of Qatar, releasing a number of high-profile prisoners including women’s rights campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul, and proposing a cease-fire in Yemen, Riyadh has made progress. However, there is more work to be done, and since resurrecting nuclear diplomacy with Iran is a top administration priority, the slowly emerging thaw makes more sense than ever for Saudi Arabia given the Biden presidency.
By continuing to explore new contacts with Iran, Saudi Arabia demonstrates to the administration that it, too, is interested in reviving diplomacy as the centerpiece of policy toward Iran. It is signaling that it is not interested in serving as an obstacle to the revitalization of the JCPOA or increasing tensions in the region. In addition, however, given that Washington and Tehran are likely to continue diplomatic efforts on their own terms, Riyadh cannot rely on Washington to protect its interests at all times. If the United States and Iran are going to be engaging in horse-trading on their own concerns, Saudi Arabia is going to need to do some haggling on its own if it hopes to influence the shape of diplomacy and strategic developments in the region and secure its own interests.
Therefore, independent Saudi outreach to Iran serves both to support Washington and as a hedge against the United States potentially ignoring Saudi concerns in talks with Tehran. And, as with so much else for traditional U.S. partners in the Middle East, the prospect of a shrinking U.S. footprint in the region, and less reliable and robust U.S. support for resolving major national security crises, has intensified the push for avenues of independent action and strategic diversification. This can take the form of strengthening ties with other states with complementary security concerns (such as growing relations between the UAE and Israel) or that of diplomatic outreach to traditional antagonists, such as in this case.
An Era of Consolidation, Retrenchment, and Maneuver
The Iranian-Saudi dialogue is also emerging in an extended period of diplomatic maneuvering throughout the region and a declining emphasis on hard power and armed conflict, either directly or through proxy. Most of the Middle Eastern countries that seek to project their power are somewhat overextended, many of them badly so. That includes Iran and Saudi Arabia but also rather dramatically Turkey and even the UAE. In addition to having bitten off more than they can chew, the countries that became involved in conflicts throughout the region in recent years have been forced to recognize that most have been effectively won by one of the warring parties, are stalemated, or have otherwise passed the point of diminishing returns. In most cases, for outside powers there is little to be gained by continuing to pursue battlefield advantages in conflicts including those in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and even Yemen. This does not necessarily apply to local forces, notably the Houthis. But the appeal of foreign adventures or even proxy campaigns hit a nadir in 2020.
As a consequence, the Middle East is experiencing a remarkable spate of diplomatic activity and soft power initiatives in which regional players try to secure their interests beyond the battlefield. These states are seeking to consolidate whatever gains they have made, review and revise their engagements abroad (frequently to reduce them), and explore what can be accomplished through maneuver rather than confrontation. Examples include the Arab diplomatic openings to Israel, the end of the Qatar boycott, efforts to rehabilitate Syria in the Arab world, increased political competition in Iraq, jockeying for position in the Horn of Africa, the reinvigoration of a political process in Libya, and a considerable reduction in tensions between Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The dialogue between Riyadh and Tehran that appears to be emerging is another excellent example of this pattern of consolidation, retrenchment, and maneuver. Both countries are interested in testing the waters and discovering what can be achieved through dialogue. However, since none of the key drivers of Saudi-Iranian tensions have been resolved, the current atmosphere of consolidation and maneuver may be temporary – any number of dramatic developments could spark new direct or proxy confrontations in a range of theaters around the region.
With Washington now championing a return to diplomacy in the Middle East and around the world, perennial regional rivals such as Iran and Saudi Arabia have a remarkable opportunity to try to prepare the grounds for an ongoing dialogue and put as many structural guardrails in place as possible. Ideally such talks could eventually produce a regional security framework. But even if that is unattainable under current circumstances, at least enough progress could be made to help ensure that a return to tensions causes much less harm than it otherwise might. And there is at least the prospect for the development of a virtuous circle in which small successes build on each other, leading to a stronger sense on both sides of the viability of coexistence, even in the context of continued competition.