Will there be reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia?
by Valery Kulikov on 01 Jan 2023 0 Comment

The relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is now the focus of attention not only by their immediate neighbours as the stability of the Middle East and the situation in their rival countries, such as Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, depends on the development of this relationship.


According to anecdotal evidence leaked to the media, Iranian leaders have recently expressed an interest in re-establishing diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh, for its part, has been careful not to make any overt reciprocal steps towards Tehran. However, it must be stated that the complete reciprocal boycott by the two countries has ended. Many powers, especially in the Persian Gulf, have already expressed their willingness to assist in the search for reconciliation and the possibility of restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries.


Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been in permanent crisis, especially since the Iranian revolution and the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. Going beyond traditional Shia / Sunni dividing lines, the rivalry between the two countries has long transcended the religious sphere, affecting politics and the economy. Nevertheless, although Iran and Saudi Arabia are antagonists, it is quite clear that they are in no mood to escalate the conflict to a military phase.


However, there are certain forces in the world seeking to stir up controversy and even armed conflict between these countries. Above all, it is Israel and the US, which have an obvious interest in weakening Tehran. Washington has recently actively sought to build a united front against Saudi policy because of the desire for foreign policy autonomy expressed by this once closest US ally in the Middle East. Riyadh’s willingness to join BRICS, and subsequent decision with other OPEC+ countries to cut oil production in order to maintain global price levels, has been met with particular hostility in the White House.


Accusing the kingdom’s leadership of allegedly helping Russia fund the special operation in Ukraine, US President Joe Biden has even threatened the Saudis with “consequences,” as Washington has recently been intensively considering how to respond to “such behaviour on the part of Riyadh.” Therefore, should relations between Tehran and Riyadh escalate, Washington is clearly counting on a subsequent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and the US and on using any such conflict to make new multi-billion dollar deals to sell significant quantities of US arms to the kingdom.


However, while the rhetoric of Iranians and Saudis can at times be described as openly bellicose and hostile, both countries prefer to follow the Middle Eastern wisdom that tomorrow Americans may be tens of thousands of miles away, and that Allah has ordered all Muslims to live in friendship. Therefore, even the appearance of the red banner of vengeance over the dome of the Jamkaran Mosque in Iran on November 1, which could be interpreted as a declaration of war, is most likely a provocation by external forces (particularly, perhaps, Israel), who tried to use the radical Shia town of Qom, where the mosque is located, to exacerbate bilateral relations.


It is therefore not surprising that representatives of Tehran and Riyadh, in an apparent attempt to avoid interference by “external players” in their relationship, have engaged in a series of secret meetings in recent months to discuss regional security issues. In particular, the parties touched upon the war in Yemen between the Houthis and the Saudi-backed military coalition.


In early November, at the concluding session of the Bahrain Dialogue Forum “East and West for Human Coexistence,” in the presence of Roman Catholic head Francis, Al-Azhar sheikhs called for an intra-Islamic dialogue to address the causes of division and sectarian conflict. They stressed the need for Sunnis and Shia to abandon the elements that provoke escalation and tension that have resulted from an era of divisiveness and aggression against the Islamic world.


For Russia, which has excellent relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia, any conflict in the Middle East region is extremely unprofitable. Moscow has therefore repeatedly declared its readiness to play a mediating role, to act as a negotiating platform between Tehran and Riyadh and to complement the steps of rapprochement already taken by the two countries.


It should be recalled that the two neighbours have recently made efforts to resume diplomatic relations and have held an entire series of negotiations, most of which took place in Iraq. Meanwhile, Iran and Saudi Arabia, as major oil producers, have demonstrated their interest in establishing bilateral ties, including to secure oil trade, which is important for the economies of both countries. This similarity between the parties in recent years is not surprising and is explained by their growing financial difficulties and the maximization of current revenues in the oil market, as opposed to Washington’s policy of keeping prices low enough to discourage oil consumers from turning to alternative energy sources.


Throughout the autumn 2022, representatives of Iran and Saudi Arabia negotiated through Baghdad in an attempt to restore relations. The last few rounds of negotiations have eased tensions, with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian even indicating in one of his interviews that the negotiations were moving from strictly security matters to the political level. On December 19, the Islamic Republic’s Foreign Minister said Tehran was ready to build trust and co-operate with its neighbours in the Persian Gulf in all areas to help get rid of “the idea that security will be provided from abroad,” clearly referring to the US presence.


Iranian and Saudi Foreign Ministers Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud met in Amman on December 21 on the sidelines of the Second Baghdad Conference on Cooperation & Partnership. The Iranian Foreign Minister said the Saudi Minister assured him of Riyadh’s willingness to continue dialogue with Tehran and stressed that negotiations with Saudi Arabia will continue along the same path of official diplomacy in order to open the embassy of the two countries and return to normal relations.


An agreement between Tehran and Riyadh would certainly benefit the Middle East by reducing the likelihood of a conflict between two key countries in the region. In addition, such an agreement would create a new architecture for the region, in which the US presence is becoming less and less necessary. However, the latter fact, clearly unacceptable for Washington, does not rule out attempts by the US and Israel to prevent the above agreement from being reached.


Valery Kulikov, political expert, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.” Courtesy


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