While the Saudi-Iranian relations have mostly been shaped by ‘peaceful rivalry’ since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, they increasingly turned hostile following the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. Building on recent dynamics in the Gulf region, high level politicians of Saudi Arabia and Iran have signaled serious willingness for dialogue and reconciliation. We argue here that these renewed efforts are primarily motivated by security and economic concerns but have also been supported through a series of informal interactions at different societal levels. While dialogue seems possible and desirable, its long-term prospects will be challenged by changing regional dynamics and the respective political will to overcome historical constructs of rivalry and regional competition.
In a broadcast Interview on April 27, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman explained that Riyadh still had problems with Iran’s “negative behavior”, referring to Tehran’s nuclear program, missiles and support to militias in the region. At the same time, the Crown Prince expressed the Kingdom’s “openness” for a new chapter with the Gulf’s neighbor, stating that: “[…] the Kingdom wants to have good and special relations with Iran […]”. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman welcomed what he called a “change of tone” from Saudi Arabia and expressed his hope for easing tensions and cooperation between both.
These encouraging signals seem to build on a process that has been going on behind the scenes for much longer. Already in mid-April 2021, an Iraqi official stated that the Iraqi prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, has set up a mediation process in the country where Saudi and Iranian officials held direct talks with the aim of facilitating exchange and cooperation, especially on the ongoing conflict in Yemen and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also known as Iran nuclear deal.
Existing Channels for Dialogue
While the Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations have experienced phases of hostility but also cooperation, they were completely cut off in 2016 after a group of Iranian demonstrators protesting against the execution of the Shia cleric Nimr Al-Nimr attacked the Saudi embassies in Teheran and Mashad. Although Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Zarif have repeatedly declared Iran’s openness to dialogue throughout his tenure, the Saudi leadership rejected these offers. However, behind the scenes, a rapprochement had been in the making since 2019. The new US-Administration may just have contributed an additional incentive for direct publicly admitted engagement.
Indeed, regardless of the official diplomatic efforts, informal dialogue and exchange between Saudi Arabia and Iran have occurred already before on other societal levels. Since at least 2015, different mediation and dialogue initiatives have managed to convene stakeholders and interlocutors from the political, economic, cultural, religious and academic realm from both countries. For example, in the framework of the Iran-Saudi Dialogue Initiative, participants discussed topics of shared interest and possible cooperation mechanisms by engaging in joint knowledge exchange and knowledge production. Thereby, they proved that dialogue is feasible against all odds. Furthermore, they frequently emphasized the need for such people-to-people exchanges as they help to humanize the other side and promote the deconstruction of historical images and perceptions of rivalry and competition. While such efforts may have only limited impact on the official diplomatic relations, owed to their dependency on the governments’ political will, they do have their merits as they reveal the variety of shared interests and challenges. Thereby, such dialogue initiatives prepare the ground for a better understanding of each other and promote sustainable relationship and trust-building on different societal levels.
Push Factors towards Peace: Security and Economy
Taking a closer look, it is obvious that both countries share certain challenges that are related to climate change and their oil-based economies and pursue, at least to some degree, similar interests such as Iraq’s stability and integrity and maritime security. However, the current efforts for dialogue need to be considered in light of increasing threat perceptions of both countries’ security situation and its respective influence on their economies. This applies not only to both conflict parties but also to Iraq as the mediator.
Following former US-president Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018 and his ‘maximum pressure’ campaign, which included a comprehensive sanctions regime, Iran faced serious economic hardship. As a consequence, the Iranian Rial was depreciated enormously against the U.S. dollar (from 2018 to 2021 by around 450%). While Trump’s maximum pressure campaign did not achieve the intended regime surrender, it nevertheless weakened Iran’s political, economic and strategic position in the region. Although Iran remains powerful and able to support its proxy forces in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, this support has nevertheless become more costly. Furthermore, throughout Trump’s presidency, Iran’s security interests have been seriously undermined and violated – be it through the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, former commander of the Quds Forces, or a series of powerful blows by Israel, targeting Iran’s nuclear program and militia proxies in Syria and Iraq.
Taking the upcoming presidential elections in June and the likely victory of more conservative and hard-line actors into account, the current Iranian government may regard the emerging dialogue with Saudi Arabia also as a chance to counter the heightened security threats and to restore some of its diplomatic achievements before leaving office. With concrete dialogue efforts being in place, a more conservative government could be compelled to build on them and continue some sort of exchange – most likely in a less publicly admitted manner. Hence, being in line with Iran’s longstanding efforts to engage in negotiations with Arab neighbors and in the development of a regional security framework, Iraq’s mediation efforts fell on fertile grounds and were positively welcomed.
As one reaction to the U.S. ‘maximum pressure’ campaign in 2018, Iran started to disrupt other countries’ oil shipments through the Gulf with the aim of threatening regional allies of the U.S. – and thereby, de facto the international oil-trade. Since mid-2019, Saudi Arabia has been experiencing significant security threats to its own territory. During the past two years, the Houthis, an Iranian-backed Shia militia, used drones to bomb Saudi airports, military bases, oil pipelines and oil fields. The hostilities against Saudi targets reached a crucial climax in September 2019 when Houthi drones caused major fires at two of Saudi Aramco’s critical oil facilities, cutting the company’s total oil production in half, according to the Saudi Energy Minister. This cut of about 5 million barrels a day equaled to around 5% of the global oil supply at the time. In early 2021, Saudi Arabia was also hit by drones launched from Iraq and openly targeted by Shia militias such as the Alwiya Alwaad Alhaq who claimed that Saudi Arabia sponsored the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS), who was responsible for the recent double suicide bombing in a central Baghdad market.
Adding to this economic blow, the Saudi leadership had to realize that its longstanding security ally, the U.S., under the Trump Administration, did not intervene or intend to engage in stopping the Iranian-backed militias’ attacks. By officially withdrawing from the Yemeni conflict for good in February 2021, the Biden Administration reinforced the new U.S. non-intervention policy and thereby supported Saudi Arabia’s security threat perception. Furthermore, with the Biden Administration being in office, Saudi leadership has faced lately further pushback and opposition owed to its engagement in the Yemen war, human rights abuses and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Reacting to this increased international pressure, Saudi Arabia adopted a more diplomatic approach by ending the boycott of Qatar, releasing some high-profile prisoners including women’s right activist Loujan al-Hathloul and proposing a ceasefire in Yemen. The openness to engage with Iran can be regarded as an additional effort in this broader diplomatic framework.
At the same time, the perceived security crisis pushes the Saudi Kingdom to explore and consider also other regional and international alternatives: starting with its endeavors to purchase the Turkish drone’s technology “Bayraktar” over to establishing new channels with Russia and China. This choice of potential new allies is not surprising as both countries have become more active and involved in the region over the past decade – be it through military interventions as in the case of Russia or through deepened economic relations and agreements as in the case of China. Since both countries also cultivate diplomatic, economic and strategic relations with Iran, they may rather welcome the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement and not endanger the initiative. However, it will remain challenging for the Saudi leaders to harmonize its position as a traditional U.S. ally with its current approach of building new economic and security alliances.
Iraq has great interest in mediating Saudi-Iranian relations since the country itself experienced at first hand the competition between the two rivals and their respective allies. Indeed, post-U.S. and post-IS Iraq faces tremendous challenges regarding its security sector and rule of law as it is still frequently challenged by Iranian-backed militias. Conflicts are slowly arising between Shia militias loyal to Iran and those loyal to the Iraqi religious schools as well as between the Shia militias and the Sunni tribal militias who receive fewer positions of power and less effective weaponry and equipment than their Shia counterparts. On a strategic level, the Iraqi government is, inter alia, trying to repel Turkey’s repeated violations of their northern borders which aim at attacking Kurdish Militias. Facing the power vacuum the U.S. have left behind on a regional level, the Iraqi government, along with Egypt and Jordanian, seeks to restore an Arab regional diplomatic role after the decade-long failure of the Arab League. For these reasons, the Iraqi government aims to strengthen its position and play a bigger role in the region: increasing its cooperation with Arab states while securing its national interests by mediating between the two powers of the regional ”Cold War” – Iran and Saudi Arabia. While Iraq may face its own internal challenges, it constitutes a suitable mediator: The Khadimi Administration has shown that it seeks to better balance and counter external influences within Iraq. Therefore, by displaying Iraq’s interest in convening constructive, honest, and meaningful dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it has also gained the respective parties’ trust and respect – which inversely could establish more stability in Iraq.
Conclusion and Challenges of Dialogue
Summing up, a particular combination of international and national dynamics as well as (geo-)political, economic and security factors have persuaded Saudi Arabia and Iran, that dialogue is the better option in comparison to continuously escalating hostilities – for now. While both sides have declared their political will and openness for increased dialogue, the current window of opportunity remains fragile and instable. With the upcoming elections in Iran and Iraq as well as Saudi’s current exploration of alternative international allies, the political climate in the Gulf may soon change again. Even if Iraq manages to mediate and establish some dialogue channels, tensions will surely arise once sensitive topics are discussed that touch upon the respective countries’ security, economic and regional interests. Nevertheless, this unique chance should not be dismissed easily and instead be further supported by informal dialogue efforts on the different societal levels in order to 1) provide possible ideas for cooperation, even on sensitive issues, and 2) guarantee a sustainable change in attitudes and the overcoming of historical constructs of rivalry. The road towards peace in the Gulf will prove challenging and difficult but nevertheless possible.