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Saudi Arabia-Iran – a new calculus on each side

New factors in the foreign policy calculus of Saudi Arabia and Iran will likely lower the intensity of the confrontation between them

Tarek Osman , Tuesday 27 Apr 2021
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One or two meetings have taken place, likely at the level of heads of intelligence. And the interventions of two capitals in Europe and the Levant have led to the preparation of another meeting in a few weeks.  

This is not the beginning of a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran – for the ruling regimes in the two countries have diametrically opposed objectives and interests.  

But it could be the beginning of a truce in the confrontation between the two countries, which arguably has been the most consequential in the geopolitics of the Middle East and the Gulf over the past decade. 

The change comes as several factors are compelling both Saudi Arabia and Iran to rethink their positions, at least in the short term.

FIVE FACTORS AFFECT THE SAUDI CALCULUS

One: Yemen. Ten years after the 2011 uprising in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has not managed to achieve the objectives it wants in the country. On the contrary, its main opponent, the sectarian-social group the Iran-backed Houthis, has significantly enhanced its capabilities such that it is now able to threaten key economic assets in Saudi Arabia. 

Two: The US Biden administration has taken a strong position against the war in Yemen – not merely rhetorically, but also by stopping American support (in intelligence and key supplies) to Saudi Arabia. This lessens Saudi capabilities in Yemen, which will make the Houthis more assertive.

Three: There are influential circles in Washington DC that have been using the acute humanitarian crisis that the war in Yemen has resulted in to weaken Saudi positioning in the US, particularly in Congress and the media. This comes after the Khashoggi affair, in other words the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. The result is that brand Saudi has been suffering for some time in America. 

Timing is important here, because Saudi Crown-Prince Mohamed Bin Salman realises that Saudi Arabia’s, and his own, positioning in the US will be important when the moment of his ascension to the throne after King Salman comes. At that moment, America’s position on Saudi Arabia could have consequences.

Four: The US-Iran deal. Saudi Arabia realises that a deal between these two countries will take time, but that it will ultimately take place. As the famous English saying goes, “if you can’t beat them, join them.” Saudi Arabia wants to be in the discussions leading to a new grand deal between the US and Iran.

Five: There’s a new mediator who has proven himself to be particularly talented in all the negotiations related to Iran. This is Iraqi Prime Minister Mostafa Al-Kazimi, who has had a subtle but strong relationship with Tehran for years and who has also managed to gain the trust of Riyadh. Increasingly, he is able to find the angles through which Saudi Arabia and Iran see that the benefits of discussion outweigh those of confrontation. 

THE IRANIAN CALCULUS IS DIFFERENT

One: Iran has achieved major strategic gains over the past decade, often at the expense of Saudi Arabia. But Iran is tired militarily and economically. Saudi Arabia, however, has immense economic resources, and in the world of oil it is vastly more powerful than Iran and as such can increase the economic pressures on Tehran. Economic exhaustion incentivises Iran to sit down and talk with Saudi Arabia.

Two: Iran has for decades seen in its relationship with Saudi Arabia a way into dealing with various important dossiers including the Shia presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, the future of Bahrain (where Saudi Arabia has notable influence and where the population is majority Shia), and the global Sunni-Shia dialogue. 

Three: As always in its foreign policy, Iran seeks to hold negotiations even with its arch-opponents and even when tensions are high. This is why Iran has continued to seek dialogue even after Saudi Arabia cut all links between the two countries in the wake of the burning of its embassy in Tehran three years ago. 

NOT A RAPPROCHEMENT BUT A TRUCE

Yet, despite the factors highlighted above, the two sides’ opposing objectives, interests and world views will likely keep them not only apart, but also the champions of utterly different futures for the Middle East and the Gulf. 

However, these new factors in the calculus of the two countries will also likely lower the intensity of the confrontation between them. This will be highly welcome in Yemen, and it could well be the beginning of some crisis-averting steps in Lebanon.

*The writer is the author of Islamisim: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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