Despite Riyadh Tone Change, Iran-Saudi Ties Seen Likely to Stay Rocky
Unless Tehran transforms its foreign policy, any rapprochement will be marginal, experts say
Significant improvement in the relationship between Riyadh and Tehran remains a distant possibility, despite a change in approach by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman toward Iran and clandestine meetings between the rival nations’ representatives in Iraq, analysts say.
Appearing on Saudi television on Tuesday, Prince Mohammed, commonly known as MbS, did, however, take a different approach than in the past.
“In the end, Iran is a neighboring country; we all aspire to establish a good and distinguished relationship with Iran,” he said.
The interview falls in the context of unpublicized meetings between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Iraq, which began on April 9, according to the Financial Times.
Varsha Koduvayur, a senior research analyst at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank who focuses on the Gulf states, says the change in US administration is responsible for this initiative to improve ties between the two regional powers.
“MbS’s conciliatory tone toward Iran shows that Riyadh is hedging [its bets] and comes amidst this turbulence in US-Saudi relations, while the US seeks to restore the nuclear deal with Saudi arch-rival Iran,” she told the Media Line. “The Saudis are worried that their security concerns will not be adequately addressed.”
MbS faces increased scrutiny from the new administration and members of Congress.
“This administration has indicated it will be harsher on the kingdom’s human rights record and prosecution of the Yemen war than the previous administration was,” Koduvayur says. “There is also a clamor of voices within US politics calling for even tougher measures against the Saudis, such as banning all arms sales to the kingdom or banning MbS from ever entering the US again.”
Emma Soubrier, a visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, agrees.
“While a purely confrontational and even hawkish stance toward Tehran was on brand during the Trump years, this is not the way the Biden administration wants to proceed in the Gulf,” she told The Media Line. “I see MbS’s tone as one more proof that Riyadh is looking to appease Washington.”
The civil war in Yemen, where Iran and Saudi Arabia support opposing sides, is now helping to bring them together, analysts say.
“Saudi Arabia has realized that there is no way forward in Yemen without a diplomatic lever being pulled with Iran. Riyadh’s confrontational approach with the Houthis has yielded no results and has no prospect of leading to any cessation of hostilities that would be in Saudi Arabia’s favor,” Dr. Andreas Krieg, a lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, Royal College of Defence Studies and fellow at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, told The Media Line.
“So, in many ways talking to Iran is the acknowledgment that all other avenues and approaches failed in the standoff between Riyadh and Tehran,” Krieg says.
The Yemeni civil war ignited in 2014 when Shiite Houthi rebels captured Saada Province and later seized Sanaa, the country’s capital.
The following year, Saudi Arabia entered the conflict, leading a Sunni alliance to fight against the rebels, who are backed by Iran.
“Saudi Arabia has come to the conclusion that reaching a deal is better for the Saudi national interest and I think it also shows a maturity of Saudi foreign policy, which during MbS’s reign has sometimes been very haphazard and unplanned,” Arash Azizi, a researcher at New York University and author of The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US and Iran’s Global Ambitions, told The Media Line. “They’re acting more cautiously, as is in line with the traditions of Saudi foreign policy.
Azizi says any deal with Iran would involve either curbing the Houthis’ military actions toward Saudi Arabia or the formation of a transitional government.
“Iran can tighten the leash on the Houthis if it serves their broader interest,” he says.
The second option would involve helping the Yemenis establish some semblance of a national government, with regional authorities still retaining a great deal of control.
“Any agreement would be provisional, and it would be more like a ceasefire. Whether that could lead to genuine reconciliation…, we would have to see,” Azizi says. “Yemen has hardly ever had a united centralized government at any time in its history.”
In addition, Azizi argues, any agreement Saudi Arabia makes with Iran will be temporary, as the fundamental nature of Iran’s foreign policy is to spur volatility.
“The Islamic Republic has followed a policy of bringing instability to the region and using it to advance its goals, especially in Arab countries over the last decade, because it does not have normal economic relations with the West and much of the region,” he says.
“This will only shift if they have a fundamental change in foreign policy, where they no longer want to destroy Israel or overthrow governments in Iraq and Lebanon and no longer desire to export the Islamic Revolution,” Azizi says.
Krieg says substantial improvement of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran should not be expected any time soon.
“We are far away from any thaw in this relationship,” he says. “With hardliners having ever more leverage on foreign and security policy in Iran, the window of opportunity to come to an agreement with the current moderate government is closing.”
Tensions between Tehran and Riyadh have been notoriously hostile for some time.
In 2016, Riyadh ended diplomatic relations with Tehran after its embassy in the Iranian capital was attacked. This was preceded by the House of Saud executing a prominent Saudi Shiite figure, Ayatollah Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, after he was convicted of terrorism-related charges.
In a November 2017 interview with The New York Times, the Saudi crown prince called Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “the new Hitler of the Middle East.”
Bahram Qasemi, then spokesperson of Iran’s Foreign Ministry, now ambassador to France, said, also in November 2017: “Now that [MbS] has decided to follow the path of famous regional dictators …, he should think about their fate as well.”
Soubrier says that ultimately, the region will become more stable and improve, especially on the humanitarian level.
“Down the road, improved relations between the rivals from the two shores of the Gulf could open the door to cooperation in key topics such as public health security, food and water security, all human-focused dimensions of security that have proven to be the most crucial to tend to since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as maritime security, for example,” she says.