Regional rivals break ice

Manal Lotfy , Tuesday 19 Oct 2021

The positive vibes in Riyadh and Tehran about improving their relations are not just good news for Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also for Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. That the mood music should be heard over such a vast area is testimony to how, over the last four decades, the Saudi-Iranian relationship has shaped much of the dynamic of the Middle East.

the Saudi-Iranian relationship
the Saudi-Iranian relationship

Iran has, till now at least, presented the more optimistic picture of the talks, while Saudi Arabia has contented itself with saying they are “exploratory”.

The two countries have held four rounds of talks since April, and steps have been taken to resume trade exchanges.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Said Khatibzadeh said on Monday that the talks “have been cordial, and to the same degree serious”. Speaking to reporters during his regular weekly briefing, Khatibazadeh said that the talks, which have been held in Iraq, had “taken place in a friendly and positive atmosphere”. He offered no details, beyond saying the talks must be allowed to proceed, and denying reports that a Saudi delegation will soon visit Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan said this week that the kingdom is “serious” about talks with Iran, signalling Riyadh’s desire to repair its relations with Tehran.

Though it all sounds promising, it is too early to know if Saudi-Iranian relations are entering a new phase or whether they will revert to hostility. The two countries, after all, disagree on a great many issues. That said, the ongoing talks, and hopefully a subsequent rapprochement, open possibilities to engage on many levels, not least the proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, and may also help reduce political divisions in Lebanon and Iraq.

To change the direction of the two countries’ relations in a way that will help foster stability in the region, however, will take time and effort.

That the Europeans and US support the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement is one cause for optimism. A European diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly that “EU and US officials actively encouraged the two countries to talk directly to each other to resolve their differences.”

The message they sent to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states is that the US and Europe will give priority to the resumption of the nuclear deal with Iran, and to ensuring that Tehran does not develop nuclear weapons, in return for other countries in the region engaging in a constructive dialogue with Iran in the hope of resolving crises in Yemen, Lebanon, and Syaria.

There is little doubt that improving relations with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries is seen as a strategic goal in Tehran. Ibrahim Raisi, Iran’s newly elected conservative president, is keen to show that his country is not isolated and its relationships with neighbours are getting better.

As the resumption of nuclear talks in Vienna between Iran and the West approaches Tehran is keen to send signals that its powerful neighbours support the revival of the nuclear deal, and fully understands that, without solid regional support, a revived deal is unlikely to survive for long. For Iranian officials, the road to the Gulf states passes through Saudi Arabia, and it is only logical for Tehran to talk with Riyadh if it wants to show it is no longer isolated. Iran is also suffering severe economic problems, a result of international sanctions and the Covid-19 pandemic, and is desperate to ease the economic pressure on its people.

Saudi Arabia, for its part, is convinced the Biden administration is serious about reviving the nuclear agreement with Iran, and Riyadh does not want to stand in the way or appear as an obstacle to US interests.

Following the Biden administration’s hurried withdrawal from Afghanistan, Riyadh also realised that Washington is serious about reducing its military commitments in the Middle East, leaving it with little option but to deal directly with Iran to address contentious issues.

In an attempt to show relations are improving, the Iranian Customs Organisation Spokesman Rouhollah Latifi announced the resumption of trade ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which he described as “good news”. Iran, he revealed, has just exported $39,000 worth of goods to Saudi Arabia, including $6,000 worth of tiles, and $33,000 worth of glass for use in traffic signs. He hailed the resumption of exports to the kingdom as heralding a thaw in political, economic, and cultural ties.

Meanwhile, a Saudi official said this week that Riyadh is considering allowing Iran to reopen its consulate in Jeddah but said the talks had not yet made sufficient progress to restore full diplomatic relations, something Iran has been pushing for. Riyadh is also considering allowing Tehran to reopen its representative office for the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation in the port city.

The slow and gradual improvement in relations does not, however, mean the road ahead is smooth.

“Riyadh does not want regional security to be left to bilateral understandings with Iran. Riyadh wants the US role to remain strong because it does not trust Tehran and has seen only symbolic signs and statements so far,” the European diplomat told the Weekly.

In a rare interview, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud told the Financial Times that talks with Iran had been “cordial”, emphasising “we are serious about them”. Prince Faisal also insisted that Riyadh “does not pick fights”.

“The leadership has a clear policy that the priority is prosperity, building the country, Vision 2030, and you can’t deliver those things with a region in turmoil.

“So, while we will vigorously defend our national security and our sovereignty, we will try to resolve them through diplomacy as well.”

He added that there was a “confluence of events that made it feel like it was the right moment” to talk to Iran. “We were always willing to talk if they might actually be serious,” he said. “Various factors came into play.”

The continuation of the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement depends on many factors, the success of the nuclear negotiations between Tehran and the West, and a de-escalation of tensions in Lebanon and Yemen, foremost amongst them. And what, by now, is abundantly clear, is that failure in the nuclear negotiations will signal not only the end of the road for any thaw between Riyadh and Tehran, but a raising of the temperature across the region.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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