By Prasanta Kumar Pradhan *
Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two main regional rivals, met in Baghdad in April 2021. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi played a key role in bringing the two countries to the negotiating table. The talks took place between Khalid Al Homeidan, chief of general intelligence, Saudi Arabia, and Saeed Iravani, deputy secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.
On May 5, 2021, Iraqi President Barham Salih confirmed that Iran and Saudi Arabia had had talks “more than once” and added that the talks were still “ongoing”. The Yemen issue featured prominently in the discussions.2
The talks between the two regional rivals are a significant development that has the potential to change geopolitics and security in the West Asian region. Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan has expressed hope that the “exploratory talks” will bring concrete diplomatic gains.3 Saeed Khatibzadeh, spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, expressed his country’s interest in resolving the conflict issues with Saudi Arabia and asserted that de- escalation between the two was “in the interest of both nations and the region”. 4
Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, marked by rivalry and competition, have deteriorated further in the wake of the Arab unrest. They have been involved in a proxy war in regional conflict zones ranging from Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. None of them had so far shown an intention to engage with each other to resolve issues between them.
In the aftermath of the execution of Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr Al Nimr by the Saudi government in 2016, relations deteriorated further. Nimr was a vocal critic of the Saudi government allegedly behind anti-government protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Iran strongly condemned Nimr’s execution and warned that Saudi Arabia would “pay a heavy price” for his execution.5
Saudi Arabia, along with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), called Iran’s reaction “blatant interference in the affairs of the Kingdom.” 6 Soon after, the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the Saudi consulate in Mashhad were ransacked by protesters. Furious at the attack on its embassy and consulate, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with Iran.
In the current context, engaging in talks is beneficial for both Iran and Saudi Arabia. In Yemen, while Saudi Arabia has been involved in a military campaign against the Houthis since 2015, the latter are supported by Iran. The situation in Yemen continues to deteriorate even after several rounds of negotiations negotiated by the UN.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are under international pressure due to the deteriorating internal security and humanitarian situation in Yemen, especially since President Joe Biden has come to power. The United States has called on Saudi Arabia to end its military offensive in Yemen. Earlier, in February 2021, Biden announced the withdrawal of US military support for the war in Yemen.
Iran and Saudi Arabia face significant security and economic challenges due to their regional policies. The Houthis launched drone and missile attacks on a number of vital facilities in the Kingdom, including the ARAMCO oil facilities at Yanbu, Jazan and Ras Tanura; Abha Airport; military bases of Dammam, Najran and Asir, among other targets.
Saudi involvement in military operations in Yemen has failed to achieve its goal of driving the Houthis out of the capital Sana’a. On the contrary, the years of military operations in Yemen have strained its national budget. Riyadh would therefore like an acceptable solution to the conflict and an honorable exit from Yemen. In the current context, talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia appear to be the most effective way to find a solution to the Yemeni conflict.
Iran’s economy is gravely suffering from the crushing sanctions imposed on the country since the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Biden administration insists Iran respect the terms of the deal, before the United States can lift the sanctions. Iran is engaged in talks in Vienna with the other JCPOA signatories – the UK, Russia, France, Germany and China, to revive the nuclear deal. Iran therefore faces double pressure from the United States on Yemen and the JCPOA.
Although the two countries have come forward to initiate talks, the fundamental differences between them on ideological, political, and national and regional security issues are enormous. They see each other as a threat to their national security. Despite Iranian assurances on the peaceful use of nuclear energy, Saudi concerns about Iranian nuclear activity remain high. Saudi Arabia believes that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would shift the regional balance of power in the Middle East in favor of Tehran.
Another major issue of contention has been the presence of the United States in the region. Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries depend on the United States for their security, and American forces are present in all GCC states. Iran, on the other hand, strongly opposes the US military presence in the Gulf region. Iran, on the contrary, offers a regional security architecture involving the countries of the region only without any involvement of outside powers. Saudi Arabia and its allies suspect that the withdrawal of the US military from the region would lead to Iranian rule in the Gulf.
Besides Yemen, Iranian and Saudi interests are at odds with each other in other conflict areas like Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. In Syria, Iran is a key factor for the survival of Bashar Al Assad’s regime while Saudi Arabia supports the opposition coalition. Iran has engaged deeply with Shiite leaders and militias in Iraq and Lebanon, including Hezbollah.
Riyadh has engaged the constituencies of these countries to counter Iran’s growing influence. The competition for regional supremacy between the two is not expected to end anytime soon. Indeed, it would be difficult for them to reconcile the historical differences and the long-term interests they have throughout the region.
Given the adversarial relationship between the two, achieving substantial progress would require lengthy negotiations, as well as mutual trust and a willingness to engage in dialogue on critical issues. Talks are currently in an embryonic stage, but the reconciliation approach they demonstrate can ease tensions in the short to medium term, which can help bring temporary peace and stability to the region.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Indian government.
* About the author: Prasanta Kumar Pradhan is an associate researcher at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyzes, New Delhi.
Source: This article was published by Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis
- 1.“Saudi Arabia and Iran have spoken” more than once “: the Iraqi president”, Al Jazeera, May 5, 2021.
- 2. Nussaibah Younis, “Nation of mediation: Iraq’s new role in Iranian-Saudi talks», European Council on External Relations, May 14, 2021.
- 3.“Saudi Foreign Minister Has Hope For Exploratory Talks With Iran,” Al Arabiya, May 19, 2021.
- 4.“Those involved in the assassination of General Soleimani must be held responsible”, Tehran Times, May 10, 2021.
- 5. “Saudi Arabia must pay the “heavy price” for the execution of Nimr al-Nimr: Iran “, Indian Express, January 2, 2016.
- 6.“GCC attacks Iran for meddling in Saudi affairs“, Arab News, January 11, 2016.