Deciphering bin Salman’s change of tone

April 30, 2021 - 22:29

TEHRAN – Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler has expressed desire to mend ties with Iran for the first time in years but he refrained from offering any goodwill gesture to build confidence between Tehran and Riyadh.

In a dramatic turnabout in his views on Iran, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman called for a “distinguished relationship” with Iran amid reports of a possible thaw in Tehran-Riyadh ties. 

“At the end of the day, Iran is a neighboring country. All we ask for is to have a good and distinguished relationship with Iran. We do not want the situation with Iran to be difficult. On the contrary, we want it to prosper and grow as we have Saudi interests in Iran, and they have Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia, which is to drive prosperity and growth in the region and the entire world,” the Saudi crown prince said in a recent televised interview.

He also expressed hope that his country would be able to overcome some challenges affecting Iranian-Saudi relations. “We really hope we would overcome them and build a good and positive relationship with Iran that would benefit all parties,” bin Salman pointed out. 

Iran was quick to welcome this change of tone. “By presenting proposals and initiatives for dialogue and cooperation in the Persian Gulf region, including the Hormuz Peace Endeavour (HOPE), the Islamic Republic of Iran has been a pioneer in the path of amity and regional cooperation, and welcomes the change in Saudi Arabia's tone,” Saeed Khatibzadeh, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, said in a statement on Thursday. 

Public diplomacy between Iran and Saudi Arabia came after several Western media outlets reported that the two countries held direct talks in Baghdad in early April for the first time in at least five years. These talks are widely expected to continue in the coming weeks especially after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited a number of regional countries -Iraq, Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait- enjoying good relations with Tehran and some of them with both Tehran and Riyadh. 

During his regional tour, Zarif once again presented the long-standing Iranian peace initiative Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE), which is mainly intended to foster dialogue among regional states on security. 

Zarif’s tour raised speculations over a possible exchange of messages between Tehran and Riyadh. The Arab Weekly, a publication close to the United Arab Emirates, has put Zarif’s visits into a broader context of de-escalation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, implying that the tour is aimed to “bridge the divide between long-standing rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia and launch a dialogue between them.”

Regardless of the motivation behind Zarif’s visits, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia seem to be experiencing a period of de-escalation at least for now. Whether this thaw would continue for a long time or advance to a full-fledged restoration of diplomatic ties remains to be seen.

But the Saudis demonstrated little enthusiasm about mending ties with Iran beyond a change of tone that was more likely necessitated by the changing dynamics of the region’s politics after Joe Biden moved into the White House. The Saudi apparent flexibility came amid renewed American diplomatic efforts meant to put an end to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen. 

Right from the start, Biden made it clear to the Saudis that the days of them having full American support for their regional adventurism are over. He started his new Saudi policy by focusing more attention on the Yemen crisis, naming a special envoy for the war-torn country. He then announced that his administration would pursue diplomacy with Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), from which the Trump administration withdrew in May 2018.

As regards Yemen, the Saudis welcomed the new American effort without offering any serious concession to the Sanaa-based government. They even refused to lift their blockade on the import of humanitarian goods, conditioning it on a political solution to the long-running Yemen crisis. 

On Iran, the Saudis first called on the U.S. to include them in the ongoing Vienna nuclear talks and expand the JCPOA in a way that encompasses other thorny issues such as Iran’s missile program and its regional influence. The U.S. rejected the call to include the Saudis in the nuclear talks while assuring them that these talks will not harm their interests. 

Facing a changing international environment, the Saudis seem to have decided to tone down their rhetoric against Iran and increase diplomatic contacts with the U.S. and other Western powers. Therefore, bin Salman’s diplomatic maneuver is unlikely to heal the wounds Iranian-Saudi relations suffered in the past few years because this maneuver is not driven by a genuine desire to change tack on Iran but by an intention to ingratiate bin Salman with the new American administration.

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