The failure of US president Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East and the inability of his administration to make any real contribution to solving the problems currently faced by the region have set in motion new processes in the Arab world and heightened their determination to organize their mutual relations as they best see fit. Perhaps the most striking example of this tendency is the negotiations – still at an unofficial level – between the two main regional powers (and, until recently, bitter rivals), Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Nasser Kanaani recently announced that Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince has proposed that the next round of talks between the two countries be conducted publicly and at an official level. Mohammed bin Salman called on Iran to work together with the Arab states in the region and not to interfere in the affairs of other countries. In a speech on the overall situation in the Persian Gulf region, the Saudi Crown Prince said: “We call on Iran, as a neighboring country … to cooperate with the countries of the region to be part of this vision, by adhering to the principles of international legitimacy, noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries, cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and fulfilling its obligations in this regard.”
In turn Fuad Hussein, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, told the Iraqi news agency Rudaw that after five rounds of closed meetings between Saudi Arabia and Iran, facilitated by the Iraqi parliament, the two countries had agreed on their first open meeting held between their Foreign Ministers, to be held in Baghdad. He did not say when the meeting would take place.
US President Joe Biden and a number of Arab leaders including the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi in Jeddah recently attended a Security and Development Summit in Jeddah, but the event was not a success. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman (see above) also said that in a recent telephone conversation between Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the Iranian Foreign Minister, and his Iraqi counterpart, the latter had said that Mohammed bin Salman welcomed the political and public talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, in Jeddah. “This is an encouraging sign, and we believe that given the parties’ determination to take practical steps and move forwards, it is now possible to hold the next meeting at an official political level in Baghdad. We are confident that this meeting will represent a significant and important step towards the renewal of relations between the two countries”, said Nasser Kanaani.
As readers may remember, the talks in Baghdad began back in April 2021, and have been continuing, on and off, ever since. The most recent round was less shrouded in secrecy than the previous rounds, and Iranian media published a photograph of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, the Iraqi Prime Minister, in the middle of a group of Iranian and Saudi negotiators. The Iranian delegation was headed by Saeed Iravani, a member of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, who was recently appointed as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, while the Saudi negotiating group was headed by Khalid bin Ali Al Humaidan, the head of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Directorate. In the last few weeks Iran has declared on a number of occasions that it is ready to renew talks with a view to reestablishing relations between the two countries in the near future. Saudi Arabia cut off diplomatic relations in 2016 after crowds ransacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran following Saudi Arabia’s execution of the Shiite cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr.
The reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran is certain to lead to a realignment of the powers in the region and a significant reduction the influence of the USA and the EU. That might explain why the West is continually trying to drive a wedge between the Saudis and Iranians, especially by emphasizing their religious differences, which had not caused any particular problem until the events of 2016. Washington suddenly took on the role of an expert in Islamic issues, and talked a lot about the supposed ancient enmity between Shiites and Sunnis. The current US administration has been playing on these religious differences as part of its Persian Gulf policy, and only countries with Sunni governments were admitted to the Jeddah summit. In the summit Joe Biden also proposed the creation of a kind of Arab version of NATO, a project which he hopes to promote in the future. This grouping would support Western interests and be opposed to Iran.
However, apart from Jordan (which is highly dependent on the US) the Arab Gulf States were far from enthusiastic about this rather whimsical proposal. And there are a number of reasons for this. The first is that for geographic reasons, the US, and also Israel, are beyond the reach of Iranian missiles. But, if it were to come to a direct conflict between the US and Iran, the Persian Gulf countries would find themselves caught between two, or even three fires. They are vulnerable to rocket attacks from three directions – from Iraq, to the north, which is home to pro-Iranian Shiite military bases, from Yemen, to the south, and directly from Iran, which lies to the east. Aware that US-made missile defence systems are not, at present, able to protect Washington’s allies – as the regular rocket attacks on Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia have demonstrated, the Arab monarchs are not particularly interested in joining the proposed group and so far they have dismissed the idea. Despite Washington’s hopes, the Arab states – which, it turns out, are more pragmatic that the European countries, are therefore unwilling to shoot themselves in the foot by quarreling with their powerful neighbor. With things as they are, the US cannot seriously expect any of them to be tempted by its proposal.
And now the region is in the throes of an undeclared but nonetheless bitter conflict that will govern not only its future, but that of the whole Arab world. And the Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince and future King, is at the forefront of that struggle. As for Tehran’s position, this is no secret: it seeks to free the whole region from the imperium of the Western world and establish friendly relationships based on mutual good faith between the countries in the region. Iranian officials have frequently expressed this wish are doing all they can, despite the crippling sanctions imposed by the West, to restore normal, neighborly relations with all the Persian Gulf states and with the wider Arab world.
Well aware that the country is at a critical stage in its development and that its future path will largely be determined by the choices it makes today, Iran’s government is doing all it can to put its relations with Saudi Arabia on a normal footing, not least because all, the Saudi Crown prince seeks to be seen as the de facto leader not only of the Gulf States but of the whole Arab world. On the other hand, Iran’s mullahs are trying to put pressure on Joe Biden in the ongoing nuclear negotiations, in a bid to improve their position. As part of this campaign, in recent months there have been numerous announcements from Iranian officials about technical advances in the country’s nuclear research program. For example, Kamal Kharazi, a senior adviser to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, recently told the Qatari television channel Al Jazeera that Iran is technically capable of making a nuclear bomb, but has not yet committed itself to taking this step. He was interviewed the day after the end of Joe Biden’s four-week trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, during which the US President promised to stop Iran from “acquiring” a nuclear weapon. “Iran has the technical means to produce a nuclear bomb but there has been no decision by Iran to build one,” Kamal Kharazi told Al Jazeera.
Kamal Kharazi’s comments, clearly authorized by the Supreme Leader, are a rare admission that Iran may be seeking to develop nuclear weapons, something it has always denied. “In a few days we were able to enrich uranium up to 60% and we can easily produce 90% enriched uranium … Iran has the technical means to produce a nuclear bomb but there has been no decision by Iran to build one,” Kamal Kharazi said. Iran is already producing 60%-enriched uranium, which is far above the threshold established in the 2015 nuclear deal which it concluded with the US. 90%-enriched uranium is required to build a nuclear bomb.
With Iran’s nuclear status in mind, the Arab monarchies are reluctant to do anything to antagonize their neighbor. For the time being they are scaling up their involvement in the US- and Israeli missile defense system, which is designed to counter threats from Iran. This system will be essential to their defense if all else fails and the US uses force against Iran – something it describes as its “last resort” – and Iran responds with missile attacks. On the other hand, Mohammed bin Salman is seeking to improve relations with Iran in the hope that in the event of a war he, and his country, will be able to keep their feet dry while the flood rages around them.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.