Saudis may see opportunity in Raisi win to mend ties with Iran

June 20, 2021 - 21:37

TEHRAN – With a new president taking the helm in Tehran, relations between Iran and some neighboring Arab states seem to be moving in a direction of de-escalation given the momentum of peace generated in the wake of Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi’s win in Iran’s presidential election.

Ayatollah Raisi has long been depicted by foreign media as a politician with conservative views. Some even called him a “hardliner” who is going to face difficulty improving Iran’s relations with the international community. But exactly the opposite is going to happen, at least with some of Iran’s Arab neighbors who long complained about outgoing President Hassan Rouhani lacking enough powers to mend ties with them. 

Saudi Arabia and its allies such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain have been at loggerheads with Iran since at least 2016 when Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran, prompting its allies to follow suit or lower their diplomatic ties with Iran. They also mounted a fierce campaign against a 2015 nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), between Iran and major world powers. The underlying reason for Saudi Arabia to oppose the JCPOA was that it did not address regional issues of interest to the Saudis.  

Facing a Saudi-led campaign against the JCPOA, Iran sought to allay its Arab neighbors’ concerns over the nuclear deal by presenting a peace initiative called the Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE). But the Saudis refused to discuss the initiative, noting that it was the brainchild of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, whom they always accused of being detached from power circles in Tehran. 

As Joe Biden was elected U.S. president in November 2020, Iran once again presented the HOPE initiative, knowing that the Saudis would pressure the new U.S. administration into giving them a seat at the negotiating table with Iran. In January 2021, as Biden took over from Donald Trump, Zarif wrote a lengthy article in the influential Foreign Affairs Magazine articulating Iran’s position on a number of nuclear and regional issues.

In that article, Zarif expressed willingness to resolve differences in the region, once again floating Iran’s Hormuz Peace Endeavor as a forum to soothe tensions. He said Iran is willing to discuss the problems of the region. “But the peoples of the region, not outsiders, must resolve these issues. Neither the United States nor its European allies have the prerogative to lead or sponsor future talks. Rather, the Persian Gulf region needs an inclusive regional mechanism to encourage diplomacy and cooperation and to lower the risk of miscalculation and conflict,” Zarif stated.

The Iranian foreign minister once again presented Iran’s Hormuz Peace Endeavor, which Iran presented to the UN General Assembly in September 2019.

Zarif said the region’s countries can use this forum to “address anxieties with confidence-building measures, resolve grievances through dialogue, and engage in mutually beneficial efforts to solve shared problems and safeguard collective interests.”

“HOPE is not a blueprint for the future—any permanent arrangement has to be arrived at collectively by all regional powers. But the proposal reflects Iran’s aspiration for a strong, stable, peaceful, and prosperous community of countries, free from the impositions of regional or global hegemony,” the foreign minister pointed out.

A few days later, spokesman for Iranian Foreign Ministry Saeed Khatibzadeh voiced Iran’s readiness to patch up ties with Saudi Arabia. The spokesman pointed out that if Riyadh seriously puts policy reforms on its agenda and concludes that the solution to problems lies in “regional cooperation,” Iran will be the first country to welcome these reforms.

“We have always underlined that regional countries should arrive at a common understanding regarding the regional problems,” he stated, noting that such understanding would help establish a “security mechanism” that could be used to govern the region.

Khatibzadeh voiced Iran’s readiness to negotiate with Saudi Arabia if it changes tack, adding that Iran is ready to address Saudi concerns regarding Iran. 

“The Saudis may have some concerns, and by the way, we emphasize that we need to talk about these concerns. The Hormuz Peace Endeavor was in the context of talking about these issues. Some concerns may be illusions that open the door to other powers in the region, and we are even willing to talk about these illusory and imaginary concerns,” the spokesman continued. 

The remarks came after Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan claimed that their hands are extended to Iran to make peace, though he accused Iran of not complying with agreements and not being “serious about talks with Riyadh.”

In April, Iran resumed talks with the remaining parties to the JCPOA in Vienna. So far, six rounds of talks have been held and they continue to be held in the coming weeks. The main goal of the talks is to revive the JCPOA by reaching an agreement on the arrangements needed for Iran and the U.S. to resume full compliance with the deal. 

In parallel with the Vienna talks, Iran also held private talks with Saudi Arabia in Baghdad in April. The Baghdad talks were mainly designed to assess the seriousness of both sides in addressing issues of interest to Iran and Saudi Arabia. 

While Iranian and Saudi security officials were busy talking to each other in Baghdad, Zarif embarked on a new regional tour to deepen and expand Iran’s ties amid reports of a possible thaw in Iranian-Saudi relations. Zarif visited Qatar, Iraq and Oman. 

“For the Islamic Republic of Iran, relations with Qatar and all other Persian Gulf littoral states are very important. The Sunday visit of his Excellency Dr. Zarif to Doha in the context of expanding and deepening bilateral relations with Qatar, especially after the recent developments in the region and the world, is very promising,” Hamidreza Dehghani, Iran’s ambassador to Qatar, said on Twitter at the time of Zarif’s visit. 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman expressed willingness to mend ties with Iran following Zarif’s tour, raising hopes of a thaw in Tehran-Riyadh relations after more than five years of tensions. 

“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,” the crown prince said. 

“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,” he added. 

At the same time, the Saudi crown prince highlighted “problems” with Iran, hoping that his country would be able to overcome these problems.

“We are working now with our partners in the region and the world to find solutions for these problems. We really hope we would overcome them and build a good and positive relationship with Iran that would benefit all parties,” bin Salman said.

Iran welcomed the change in Saudi Arabia’s tone, expressing hope of a beginning for convergence among Muslim countries. 

“By presenting proposals and initiatives for dialogue and cooperation in the Persian Gulf region, including the Hormuz Peace Endeavour, 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,” Khatibzadeh said in a statement, responding to bin Salman’s remarks.

But the incipient warmth in relations did not result in détente between the two regional heavyweights, even though the Rouhani government continued to send messages of rapprochement to the Saudis. 

During his appearance in the Antalya Diplomacy Forum, Zarif touched on the Iranian-Saudi dialogue, voicing readiness to dispatch an ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

“We have had three rounds of talks with Saudi Arabia in Baghdad, our representation was inclusive. We had representatives from Supreme National Security Council, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Intelligence, and the military,” Zarif said. 

He added, “Our neighborhood doctrine is that we are bound to live together forever. We will remain in the neighborhood; others come and go.”

“I am ready to send an ambassador to Saudi Arabia tomorrow. It depends on them. There is no reason that we should not be able to resolve our conflicts,” Zarif stated, indicating that restoration of ties with Riyadh depended on a Saudi decision. 

As usual, the Saudis didn’t openly respond to the Iranian foreign minister’s offer of de-escalation. But this silence may soon come to an end with Raisi taking charge. The Saudis have long expressed dismay at Rouhani’s alleged lack of power to create real change in the status quo of the Iranian-Saudi relations. But with Raisi assuming office in August, they will have no excuse to shun Iran’s offers of opening a new chapter in the two countries' relations. 

 The UAE’s reaction to Raisi’s win gave some substance to this analysis. The Emiratis have been close allies of the Saudis and they rarely make strategic changes to their ties with Iran. 

Leaders of the UAE congratulated Raeisi on his election, the UAE state news WAM reported. UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan sent a message of congratulations to Raisi on winning Iran's presidential election. In addition to Sheikh Khalifa, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, have also dispatched similar messages of congratulations to Ayatollah Raisi.

SM/PA

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