The negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia on security issues, which have been under way for more than a year, now appear to be making progress, and an agreement on the two countries’ restoration of diplomatic relations is in sight. But the Saudis’ insistence on linking the talks to the war in Yemen may have the effect of delaying an agreement. Following the successful completion of the most recent round of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, held in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, many observers believe that the prospects for a restoration of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh are much better than they were a few months ago.
Following the conclusion of the fifth round of talks at the end of April, Iraj Masjedi, who until recently served as the Iranian ambassador to Iraq (he has now been succeeded by Mohamad Kadhim al-Sadiq) announced that Iran and Saudi Arabia had agreed on a road map for their future relations. In an interview with Iran’s Mehr news agency at the beginning of May, he said that in the latest round of talks the two countries’ negotiators had discussed a range of issues including “confidence-building” measures, bilateral cooperation, the reopening of the two countries embassies, and “regional and international matters.” Both sides appear to have made progress in renewing their relations, and it is likely that the next round of talks will take place between diplomats and political leaders rather than security officials, as was the case for the previous rounds.
In mid-May, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, the Iraqi Prime Minister, who played a key role in the talks, was quoted by the Iranian newspaper Al-Shabah as saying that he expects the talks to conclude in the near future with the signing of an agreement. He continued: “We are seeing a real and vast breakthrough in relations between the countries in the region, which is reinforced by a firm conviction and a healthy determination that the future of the region depends on the parties involved beginning to look upon it as a system of converging rather than conflicting interests, which can only achieve economic growth or attain global development goals if it resolves its problems and overcomes its crises.” He added that Iraq has a direct interest in achieving a good working relationship between the nations in the region and ensuring regional stability.
At the beginning of May a high-ranking member of the Iranian parliament informed Fars News that Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the Iranian Foreign Minister, would soon meet with his Saudi counterpart in Baghdad to discuss issues of mutual concern, including the reopening of diplomatic missions and regional problems, in particular the crisis in Yemen. Certain Arab media outlets have even talked about the possibility of a summit between the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Significantly, Ebrahim Raisi is scheduled to visit Oman in the near future, where, according to Arab media reports he will discuss his upcoming trip to the UAE. That trip appears to have been organized in the wake of Amir-Abdollahian’s visit to the UAE, following which he talked about a “new chapter” in relations between Tehran and Abu-Dhabi. Both Ebrahim Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian are continuing their efforts to develop good neighborly relations with the Arab Gulf States.
In general, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia – which are crucial to the political climate in the wider region – are seeing an improvement. However, it is important to bear in mind that a breakthrough in these relations is likely to depend on the war in Yemen – in connection with which Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of supporting the Houthi, or Ansar Allah movement. According to reports in the Arab press, Saudi Arabia has requested Iran to pressurize the Houthis in a bid to reach a political solution to the war in Yemen. At the end of April, citing Arab sources, the London-based Al-Arab newspaper declared that “for relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran to return to a normal state, Tehran must make practical steps to remedy the lack of confidence, which must include putting pressure on Ansar Allah,” adding that such a step was essential in order to reach a viable political solution to the war in Yemen, which has been continuing for eight years. According to Seyed Reza Sadr al-Hosseini, a leading Iranian expert in the Middle Eastern region, the Yemeni question derailed the third round of the talks for nine months. In comments made to the Iranian Jahan News website, he explained that in the third round of the talks Riyadh made “illogical demands that Iran should not interfere with the Yemeni movement.” Teheran answered with a “firm refusal,” he added. Seyed Reza Sadr al-Hossein claims that the Saudis, on the express orders of Crown Prince Salman, broke off the talks for a period of nine months.
In turn, Iran insisted that it was not dictating any actions in relation to Yemen, and that it respected Ansar Allah’s freedom to make its own decisions. This has been repeatedly confirmed by many Iranian documents and government decisions. Al-Hossein claimed that Iran saw Ansar Allah as an experienced and respectable group that represented the views of a major section of Yemeni society. And if Saudi Arabia continues in its refusal to recognize Ansar Allah as an independent Yemeni group and demands that Iran put pressure on it then it is unlikely that a deal will be reached in Baghdad.
Many observers remain highly optimistic about the prospects of an improvement in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, in connection with the talks on the so-called Iran nuclear deal, which are under way in Vienna, the Iranians have recently been stepping up their foreign policy initiatives in a bid to strengthen their relations with the Gulf states. Tehran enjoys better relations than ever with Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE and Oman, and it is on the way to restoring diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.
It is important to note that the Saudi Crown Prince, who is currently in charge of the Kingdom’s foreign policy, has a very real interest in establishing cordial relations with Iran. After the shameful withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, abandoning loyal Afghans to their fate, Mohammed bin Salman’s attitude to the US underwent a radical change – he realized that in the new order of things his country would be forced to stand up for itself. It appears that this change of attitude is behind his refusal to speak to Joe Biden by telephone or comply with the latter’s request for Saudi Arabia to increase oil extraction. For example, polls by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (TWI) show that the decline of the US influence in the Middle East – a trend that has continued since the beginning of Russia’s special operation in Ukraine – is not simply a result of the Saudi leadership’s change in policy. This tendency is a reflection of changes in public opinion in the Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia, and will have extremely negative consequences for the US.
Even more surprising was the response of citizens of the Gulf states to the statements “Our country can no longer rely solely on the United States. We need to view Russia as a more valuable partner than we did in the past.” In Saudi Arabia, 55% of respondents selected “fully agree” or “generally agree” for this statement (compared with 49% last year). The equivalent figures for the UAE were 57%, versus 51% last year, while the figures for Bahrain were 59%, versus 54% last year. Thus, in each of those countries more than 50% of the respondents believed that their governments should put an end to their dependence on the US, and in each country the percentage who held this view was higher than last year.
Riyadh’s increasing activity on the international stage, and its bold initiative to improve relations with Tehran, its former enemy, show a clear support for Moscow’s policy of supporting the transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world. Many countries have now “woken up” to what is happening and have embraced this transition as part of their foreign policy, and, whether it likes it or not, the West, headed by the US, can do nothing to stop this trend.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.