Iranian and Saudi diplomats have grasped the need to resolve their two countries’ disagreements as the Middle East enters a new phase of geopolitical uncertainty with US President Joe Biden and his administration seeking to carve out a new path in the region.
If a breakthrough can be made in the Iran-Saudi Cold War and the two regional rivals are able to put their rocky relationship on a normal track, the event could prove calming for the turbulent Middle East region and help to mend its longstanding fractures.
Top diplomats from Iran and Saudi Arabia have been meeting for months to try to hammer out their countries’ differences and ease regional tensions.
The talks were launched in April as the international powers held negotiations on reviving the 2015 nuclear pact with Iran, which Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies opposed for not tackling Iran’s ballistic-missile programme and regional proxies.
They hit a climax last week when Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian met officials from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf and Arab states in New York in a sign of heightened efforts to reduce tensions.
Amir-Abdollahian later said that strengthening ties with neighbours was the top priority of Iran’s new government.
The Sunni Arab powerhouse and the Shia Persian-majority Iran have long been historic rivals and locked in a fierce struggle for regional dominance. In recent years they have been at loggerheads over many regional conflicts and Iran’s increasing militarisation.
Over the past 18 years in particular, the rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been deepened by a series of events. The fall of the Sunni-led regime of Iraq’s former dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 cleared the way for a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, and Iranian influence in the country has been rising ever since.
It removed a key military counter-weight to Iran and helped the Islamic Republic to seek to establish itself as a regional power and to consolidate its hegemony in countries dominated by friendly regimes or Shia Muslims.
The present Iran-Saudi meetings could break the regional impasse if the two countries succeed in clinching a deal. They have been going on under a thick shroud of secrecy, but the few details that have emerged thus far have showed that the negotiators have been focusing on Yemen and a conflict whose manifold and long-term implications both sides cannot overlook.
Iran-backed Shia Houthis who control most of northern Yemen, including the capital Sanaa, have been advancing towards the central Yemeni city of Marib, which is held by the Saudi-backed government.
They are also stepping up the fighting in the south, despite more than seven years of Saudi-led military efforts to oust them. The group has been constantly sending Iranian-designed missiles and drones to shell Saudi targets.
An essential piece of Saudi national-security strategy is to contain threats by Iran-backed militias in Iraq, which have been becoming increasingly empowered and have been boosting their presence along the country’s north-eastern borders.
Tehran has also been the main regional backer of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad against Sunni rebels in the country since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011. In Lebanon, the Iran-backed Shia group Hizbullah plays a pivotal role in political life, while its fighters have been heavily involved in conflicts in Gaza, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Iran sees positive momentum in the Iran-Saudi discussions, and top Iranian diplomat Saeed Khatibzadeh said the talks had led to “serious progress” on the issue of Gulf security, signalling the priority given by his government to the regional impact of Tehran’s foreign policies.
Saudi King Salman has expressed the hope that talks with Iran will “lead to tangible outcomes to build trust” and to the relaunch of bilateral “cooperation.” In an address to the UN General Assembly this month, he called on Iran to cease “all types of support” for armed groups in the region.
With the talks dragging on, however, there are increasing worries that finding solutions to the disagreements, especially the unspoken ones, might be tricky and take longer than expected. Old antagonisms and emerging regional and global issues may complicate the process.
The Iran-Saudi rivalry is a multi-dimensional historical and sectarian struggle exacerbated by geopolitical competition over who should have a larger say in the region’s politics. Iran is largely Shia Muslim, while Saudi Arabia, which hosts Mecca, the birthplace of Islam, sees itself as the leading Sunni Muslim power.
While sectarian rivalry about who represents “true Islam” and loyalties in proxy conflicts will remain fundamental in determining the Iran-Saudi rivalry, a successful conclusion to the competition will rest largely on geopolitical considerations.
The talks between the two countries come at a time when the US is trying to iron out a stricter framework for the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and after the Biden administration completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan in August.
The Iranians may see the US administration’s disengaging from its “endless wars” in the region as an opportunity to be less flexible at the negotiating table.
There is a widespread belief across the Middle East that the US presence is on life support and that the long-anticipated US departure from the region will end a fragile status quo for all the players and clear the way for a new regional order.
Whereas former US administrations were long-term partners and built an anti-Iran coalition led by Saudi Arabia, the present US withdrawal from the region is expected to leave a power vacuum that could create an opportunity for regional heavyweights to fill the gap.
Moreover, while the US retreats, China and Russia are increasingly making their presence felt in the region.
In March, Beijing concluded a major agreement with Tehran for $400 billion of investment over the next 25 years in exchange for steady shipments of oil and gas. Moscow is also expanding its presence through weapons sales and assertive posturing and interference.
Under these conditions, it is little wonder that active regional diplomacy is back and key Middle Eastern foes are seeking to solve old disputes to avoid further problems and possibly even a breakdown in the region.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have reconciled themselves with Qatar after having severed all links with the emirate in June 2017.
In a powerful gesture of rapprochement, Saudi Crown-Prince Mohamed Bin Salman invited Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani and UAE National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoun Bin Zayed Al Nahyan for a meeting at a Red Sea resort this month.
Saudi Arabia has also gone on a diplomatic offensive to mend ties with Turkey, strained over accusations that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is sticking his nose into the region’s disputes and trying to wield influence in the Arab world.
As a further sign of the broader political reshuffling, Saudi officials have also recently held secret talks with Syrian counterparts in Damascus, leading to reports that an agreement on restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries may be forthcoming.
Iran, too, may be on the verge of improving ties with its neighbours, particularly the Arab countries in the Gulf.
As Iranian officials continue to display restraint in their belligerency towards their neighbours, Amir-Abdollahian attended a regional conference in Baghdad in August aimed at easing tensions in the Middle East.
But even as the two main Middle Eastern adversaries are trying to lower the temperature in their longstanding standoffs, much of the outcome of the Iran-Saudi dialogue will depend on whether the two countries will be able to end their bitter disagreements and move on in their relationship.
The best thing they can hope for now is to cool off. As to the goal of stopping Iran’s nuclear and missile proliferation, containing its rising influence, and curtailing its proxy networks in the region, this remains a matter of open speculation.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly