Saudi Arabia sets the stage for tactical outreach to Iran

May 5, 2021 - 19:55

TEHRAN – In a dramatic turnabout, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler has called for better ties with Iran but is this renewed interest in mending ties between Tehran and Riyadh genuine or a tactical shift necessitated by developments in the international arena?

Iranian analysts and news media outlets have attempted to provide answers to this question over the past few weeks after a wave of speculations began in the wake of the emergence of several press reports in Western media suggesting that officials from Iran and Saudi Arabia held a direct meeting in Baghdad for the first time in years. 

At the official level, the Baghdad talks were neither repudiated nor confirmed by Iran and Saudi Arabia, though some Iranian officials hinted that the reports of talks were true. 

While the controversy over the Baghdad talks was still going on, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman further inflamed the debate by offering an olive branch to Iran after more than five years of tough rhetoric against the country.  

“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 hoped that his country would be able to overcome some challenges affecting Iranian-Saudi relations and “build a good and positive relationship” with Iran.

Iran welcomed the Saudi change of tone without any hesitation. “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. 

However, there are some concerns in Iran that this change is only another effort by bin Salman to use tactical de-escalation with Iran to weather the storm at least for now. 

Saudi Arabia is increasingly coming under pressure from political circles in Washington since Joe Biden took office this past January. The pressure was particularly tangible in Yemen where the Saudi crown prince, also known as MBS, has been entangled in an endless war to eradicate what he calls Iran’s influence there. The Biden administration has ended offensive military support for Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war, although the White House at the same time sought to help the Saudis to find a face-saving exit from the Yemen quagmire. 

In addition, the Biden administration’s stated policy of returning to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal has put Riyadh in a bind as the Saudis had thrown their weight behind Trump’s campaign to kill the nuclear deal.

In order to cope with these challenges, bin Salman embarked on a new policy of toning down tough rhetoric against a number of neighbors; he started off with Qatar and then Iran and ultimately his new approach even included a scarcely veiled rapprochement with Yemen’s Ansarallah, the very same group he has been fighting since 2015. 

The new Saudi openness to dialogue with Iran is in part grounded in the belief that resolving some of Saudi Arabia’s problems is contingent on better ties with Iran, not a genuine reconsideration that co-existence between Iran and Saudi Arabia is the only viable solution serving the interests of both countries. 

During the Baghdad talks, the Saudi side presented a list of offers and temptations, according to Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar. 

Citing sources familiar with the matter, the newspaper said that at the talks the Saudis basically demanded an end to the missiles and drones launched by Ansarallah against Saudi targets, further reinforcing the belief that the talks were a necessity for bin Salman.

The Saudis also voiced readiness to accept a larger role by Ansarallah in Yemen. Furthermore, the Saudi delegation assured the Iranians that Riyadh does not want to normalize its relations with Israel, and is willing to open a new chapter in relations with Tehran, according to Al-Akhbar.

The Lebanese newspaper also said that the Saudi delegation let its Iranian team know that the Americans seek to reign in MBS even as they believe that he will rule Saudi Arabia for a long time.

Therefore, bin Salman seems to have found out that he has no other option but to reach an understanding with Tehran in light of his conviction that Tehran alone has the keys to get him out of his problems. 

Bin Salman is busy setting the stage for this tactical shift. Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan has paid a visit to Qatar and Oman shortly after his Iranian counterpart visited the two Arab states. Moreover, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud invited Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tariq to visit Saudi Arabia. 
The Saudis seek to create a unified front among Arab states on dialogue with Iran, according to The Arab Weekly.

Citing observers, the publication said formulating a unified Persian Gulf position on the dialogue with Iran may be the immediate and pressing objective of Saudi Arabia, with the aim of creating a momentum for the improvement of the dialogue’s conditions.

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