Politics, Analysis, Middle East

Regional rivals Iran, Saudi Arabia looking to break ice, why now?

4 rounds of talks held in Baghdad between rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran since April

Sayed Zafar Mahdi and Ali Abo Rezeg  | 19.10.2021 - Update : 19.10.2021
Regional rivals Iran, Saudi Arabia looking to break ice, why now?


Diplomatic efforts to break the ice between longtime regional rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have intensified in recent months, with officials of both sides citing progress in talks brokered by Iraq.

Four rounds of talks have been held in Baghdad since April to ease tensions that first sparked in January 2016 following attacks on two Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad triggered by the execution of a prominent Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia.

There is already a buzz about the two sides agreeing to reopen consulates as a first step toward restoring diplomatic ties, even though many contentious issues remain unresolved, most notably Yemen.

Iran's foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, acknowledged last week during his visit to Lebanon that talks with Saudi Arabia have "gone a good distance", hoping to see end of tensions in the region.

The Saudi foreign minister also said his country is serious about talks with Iran, a development seen as a signal to repair relations between the two rivals.

“We are serious about the talks. For us, it’s not that big a shift. We’ve always said we want to find a way to stabilize the region,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan said in an interview with British newspaper The Financial Times published on Friday.

Change in US approach

Javad Heirannia, a Tehran-based foreign affairs analyst, says the Tehran-Riyadh talks must be seen in the context of "change in the US approach" toward the Persian Gulf region.

"Iran-Saudi dialogue is important to reduce the cost of the US withdrawal from the region amid Washington's increased focus on China and Russia," he told Anadolu Agency.

"On the other hand, when the US withdraws its military, countries in the region are forced to revive the diplomacy," he added.

Interestingly, the talks between Tehran and Riyadh come amidst stalemate over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and heightened tensions between Iran and Israel over recent attacks on Iranian nuclear sites.

Ali Bakir, a professor of international relations at Qatar University, said regional and international developments drove the two rivals to launch these talks.

“I think the talks between the two countries have surfaced due to some regional and international developments that make it necessary for them to calm down, especially on the Gulf front,” he said.

However, Bakir thinks that despite the limited breakthrough that has been achieved so far in the talks, “they will remain tactical as there is no strategic reconciliations looming.”

That’s belonging to, according to Bakir, many dynamics, mainly “the Iranian role in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, in addition to its support for armed sectarian militias, not to mention Iran's nuclear and missile program.”

Why now?

Rasoul Ghaffari, a political commentator based in Tehran, believes Iran's detente with Saudi Arabia will "increase its leverage" in the upcoming round of Vienna talks and also "dissuade Israel from carrying out destabilizing activities" in the region.

But he doesn't see the likelihood of Saudi government backing Iran's nuclear program or regional activities anytime soon.

"Saudi Arabia's support to Iran's nuclear program can be a real game-changer, but that looks very unlikely at this stage even if the diplomatic ties are restored," he told Anadolu Agency.

"At the same time, ending the Yemen quagmire would need serious political will from both sides," he noted. "As we can see, attacks in Yemen continue even while the two countries are engaged in talks."

Heirannia said Iran wants regional countries, including Saudi Arabia, to "support the nuclear deal” if it is successfully revived, referring to the resumption of indirect talks between Iran and the US in Vienna, most likely in coming days.

US-China rivalry

Head of Asia Middle East Forum, Mohammad Makram Balawi, opines that the Joe Biden administration seems to have a different strategy when it comes to Chinese-Iranian relations, which “aims at driving a wedge between Iran and China to weaken the Chinese front.”

“It would not be a surprise if we see in the next few months a kind of American leniency towards Tehran, which could pave the way to better relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.”

He noted that “Saudi Arabia on its part seems to be a bit restless since Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner left the White House, especially as it coincided with [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s loss of power in Israel.”

On a larger level, Balawi said, several moves as the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq “made Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, realize that the new American strategy on focusing on the Indo/Asia-Pacific and rapprochement with Iran would ultimately mean lifting the American security umbrella off the Gulf, and leaving them exposed to Iran, especially as Israel is not willing to fight for them, as many Israeli leaders tend to declare.”

Pertinently, the US government earlier this week welcomed direct communication between Iran and Saudi Arabia, saying it supports any talks that "lead to greater peace and stability in the region."

The talks to end the five-year standoff were launched in the previous Iranian administration led by Hassan Rouhani. His conservative successor Ebrahim Raisi has shown more enthusiasm in resurrecting ties with estranged neighbors, including Saudi Arabia.​​​​​​​

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