The echoes of recent Saudi Iran talks are indeed a good omen. Such initiatives are imperative for regional peace and cooperation. Both countries have plenty to talk about. If they move along the same way as been said or heard it would have a noteworthy impact on the Middle East’s utmost tenacious conflicts. For almost four years, diplomatic links have been sternly curtailed but now after a long pause both countries have resumed their diplomatic ties or at least have given it a chance. According to international media, senior representatives from both sides have been involved in discussions at the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. It has also been revealed that Iraq is arbitrating between the two countries.
Officially, neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran has acknowledged the talks. Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar also reported that the negotiations, which started in Baghdad, would lead to more discussions. In 2016, Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic relations with Iran after attack on Saudi embassy in Tehran. However, since last year both countries are gesturing that they might be prepared to reinstate the relationship. The two countries have adequate reasons to be more responsive and it is not merely about the change of leadership in the US White House that has understood Washington’s priorities in the Middle East modification.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are under massive financial constraints. For example, low global oil prices have created chaos concerning the debt of Saudi government. By the end of 2020, Saudi Arabia’s national debt amounted to around 33% of its gross national product. Iran is even in more difficult situation. After years of US sanctions against it, the country has been facing a hard time. The COVID-19 pandemic has further worsened the situation. In 2020, national debt of Iran amounted to over 40% of the country’s gross domestic product. This troubled economic situation has impacted many Iranians and this too is putting a huge burden on the government in Tehran. There are many geo-political issues between both countries, which has heightened the rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
To comprehend why both these countries are rivals there is a need to revisit past events. In 2011, Iran and Saudi Arabia responded inversely to the anti-government revolution in Syria, throughout the period identified as the Arab Spring. For years, Saudi Arabia has had a challenging relationship with Syria. Its leadership was opposed to the secular path taken by the country’s preceding ruler, Hafez al-Assad, and then by his son, Bashar al-Assad. In 2003, the Syrians had also opposed the assault of Iraq by the United States. The Americans are also considered Saudi allies. For so many reasons including the mentioned ones, the Saudis started supporting the Syrian rebels financially and morally. Meanwhile for Iran, Syria is an imperative part of its area of influence with mutual beliefs.
Moreover, even though Iran also emphasizes a secular Syria, the country’s current ruler, Bashar al-Assad also has the same religious beliefs as of Iran. All these reasons along with many others provided Iran a ground to support the Syrian government against its revolutionaries up until now. Given that the Assad regime currently has the upper hand in the country’s civil war, this means Iran has adequate opportunity to effect what materializes there. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, does not. Both countries also find themselves in proxy wa in Yemen. Yemen is another country where Iran is trying to surge its influence. In Yemen, Houthis are presently controlling most of the north of the country. Saudi Arabia is of the opinion that the Houthis have been immensely supported by Iran.
Saudi Arabia is supporting the internationally recognized government in Yemen. The Yemen conflict started in 2014, and since 2015, Saudi Arabia along with its alliance entailing mostly Sunni Muslim-led states has been fighting against Houthis while conducting Air attacks on Houthi-held areas. The Saudi-led alliance bears considerable responsibility for the state of Yemen. According to the United Nations, 80 % population of the country that is more than 24 million people are now reliant on humanitarian aid. At the end of March this year, Saudi Arabia proposed a peace plan for Yemen that could be the foundation of a road map out of the conflict. Some are of the view that Saudis are in quest of extracting themselves from the destructive conflict.
Meanwhile, the support for Houthis by Iran remains the same. In April 2021, US special envoy on Yemen, Tim Lenderking, revealed that he had seen no indication that Iran is trying to end the conflict by presenting any strategy. The authenticity of this claim will further be clear once the dialogue between KSA and Iran tends to move forward. Iran has always come forward with the statement that the country’s nuclear program has no military implication yet it alarmed Iran’s opponents. Saudi Arabia along with other Gulf Arab states have concern over this matter. Iran has never succeeded to persuade anybody that, the country is not working on some nuclear program. Saudi Arabia has said it reserves the right to pursue its own atomic weapons if Iran continues with its efforts to work on the said program. In November last year, Adel al-Jubeir, a senior Saudi foreign affairs official told Germany’s Deutsche Presse-Agentur news agency that it is “definitely an option.”
In the first week of April 2021, Iran publicized that it had started enriching its uranium supply to 60% purity. This is the highest percentage it has managed as yet, although it has been noted that it’s not close to the 90% enrichment needed to build a nuclear weapon. There is also a chance that renegotiation of the Iranian nuclear deal started but later in 2018, former US President Donald Trump had withdrawn. There is also difference of opinion over Israel. Both countries have their own strategy to deal with this particular matter. The current Saudi Iran talks are said to be started back in January this year. These talks are very important caused by the possibility of U.S. withdrawal from the region.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman while talking to a Saudi television stated that, “We are seeking to have good relations with Iran. We are working with our partners in the region to overcome our differences with Iran”. Almost two to three years back things seemed to be very different. The position from both sides was different with no possibility of any dialogues. One factor which appears to be very much evident and significant that is growing signs that the United States is thoughtful about shifting its emphasis away from the Middle East. Washington’s policy change in the region has compelled the regional powers to rely on their own diplomacy. However, still, there is chaos about the US military withdrawals from the region but still this is a positive sign since the regional countries are thinking about revamping their diplomatic links while managing their differences through dialogues and discussions.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s calming comments were most likely a reference of starting a new phase of relations in the region. This will further reduce tensions in Middle East by putting an end to the war in Yemen. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, emerged as a leader in the region who has a clear interest in solving Saudi-Iranian tensions, as their hostility is a risk for the whole region and more particularly for Iraq itself. Initially, Saudi officials denied the talks with Iran, while Tehran refused to comment, except by saying that it welcomes dialogue with Riyadh. As mentioned previously there is much to talk about between both countries. War in Yemen is the most important aspect encompassed by the situation in Syria and Lebanon.
Few international media outlets also revealed that the talks done so far was accompanied by various countries’ top security officials, including a meeting between the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Esmail Qaani, and Saudi Intelligence Chief Khalid al-Humaidan. This is indeed a positive sign, which can further ease things at both ends. Evidently, there are numerous aspects that specify the potential of these talks which will not only change the trajectory of Saudi-Iranian relations but also the wider security situation in the region. U.S. President Joe Biden has had a skeptical view of the United States’ military presence in the Middle East, as well America’s relations with partners in the region. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden promised to pull “the vast majority” of U.S. troops out of Afghanistan as well as many other initiatives.
The Iranian-Saudi dialogue is also evolving in a prolonged period of diplomatic maneuvering throughout the region and a decreasing emphasis on hard power and armed conflict. Epitome of all, the dialogue between Riyadh and Tehran that seems to be developing is another exceptional example of this pattern of consolidation, retrenchment, and strategy.