The coming Iranian June 18th presidential election that is expected to herald a conservative victory will have implications not only for Iranian domestic politics and internal consolidation but also for the Saudi Iranian rivalry that has played out in the wider Middle East. Recent revelations about clandestine security-led Saudi-Iranian meetings orchestrated and held in Baghdad, point to a tactical recalibration away from the period of heightened regional tensions and acrimony experienced under the turbulent Trump years. Only in a nascent phase though, this overture to Tehran should be seen as a mutually beneficial testing of the waters that will continue regardless of Iran’s electoral outcomes but can only gain momentum if Tehran demonstrates meaningful goodwill to its regional neighbours.
It’s worthwhile recalling that Saudi-Iranian ties have long been overshadowed by feelings of mistrust but have become more recently strained since 2016, when Iran protested the killing of Saudi Shia Sheikh Nimr al Nimr. This event was followed by a storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran that led to the formal downgrading of diplomatic relations. Tension reached new heights during the Trump administration when Riyadh backed Washington’s withdrawal from theJoint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and imposition of maximum pressure sanctions on Tehran as a means of reducing Tehran’s regional engagement in Arab states beyond its borders. During this period, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman compared Iran’s Supreme Leader to Germany’s Adolf Hitler whereas in his most recent statement he took a moderate tone indicating that “we are seeking good relations with Iran.”
On the Gulf Arab side, this outreach is driven by an array of interconnected issues and challenges. Foremost among them is the long-term uncertainty over the US role and commitment towards Middle East that has been a consistent thread running through the Obama, Trump and now the Biden administration. Obama raised regional concerns by signing the JCPOA, overlooking Tehran’s regional activities and asking Saudi Arabia to share the neighborhood with Iran, but it was President Trump who, despite reaffirming US-Saudi ties alongside calls for burden sharing, made clear after the September 14, 2019 attacks on Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities that the US would not come to the defense of the Kingdom. These attacks exposed the Kingdom’s vulnerability and showcased Iran’s indigenous technological progress in spite of sanctions. President Biden’s first order – prioritization of domestic economic issues and geopolitical concerns with Russia and China – has demonstrated that the Middle East remains a less order priority. The revival of the JCPOA and drawing down of the Yemen war underway since 2015 appear to be the administration’s two focal points leaving Riyadh and Abu Dhabi concerned that Iran’s regional sponsorship of non-state actors and proliferation of lethal aid beyond its borders will yet again remain unaddressed.
While not directly involved in the JCPOA talks, Saudi Arabia is present in Vienna to ensure that regional issues will be addressed in follow on talks. Riyadh’s de-facto support for the process is also meant to signal that it will be a productive player to Washington. Saudi policymakers have also observed that despite Tehran’s ability to withstand sanctions, Tehran’s regional and economic position is more fragile. Riyadh remains further frustrated that, despite repeated attempts to end the Yemen war, the Houthis or Ansar Allah, who have been supported by Tehran, continue their territorial expansion into Marib undiminished by these efforts.
Equally important has been the impact of Covid-19 amid challenging economic conditions and previously low oil prices all of which placed downward pressure on Gulf fiscal balance sheets. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030 which hinges on increased foreign direct investment has promised economic diversification and privatization needed to increase youth employment. To deliver this ambitious program though and attract FDI, Riyadh requires a stabilization of regional tensions and a recalibration. Unable to solely rely on Washington, Saudi Arabia has had to take its own initiative to avoid conflict through tepid engagement.
Here, the coming Iranian elections are relevant. Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s Judiciary Chief and 2017 presidential candidate is widely seen as the frontrunner among the six other candidates approved to run by Iran’s Guardian Council. Raisi’s conservative credentials and support for Iran’s regional proxy-based resistance strategy do not foreshadow any broad shifts in Iran’s regional agenda though. However, a conservative monopoly of domestic power in Iran could pave the way for greater internal consensus on regional engagement including outcomes that decrease Iranian isolation. Thereby, Tehran views this opening from Riyadh as an important opportunity to reduce regional tensions and cement its regional position through a rehabilitation of ties with Gulf Arab states.
While details of the Saudi-Iranian discussions have not been released, Yemen will have undoubtedly been a principle focal point. As benefactors of the Houthi cause, Riyadh is seeking Tehran’s support for a ceasefire. The challenge here is that while Tehran does provide financial, operational and military assistance to the group, it does not have command and control of the group thereby limiting its ability to constructively influence.
On a positive note, the discussions have however involved high level intelligence officials on both sides. The participation ofTehran’s security and intelligence apparatus, which has long managed Iran’s regional portfolio, signals high level support for this process.
While the dialogue between Tehran and Riyadh is expected to continue, for them to yield a broader detente both sides have to offer clear pragmatic steps forward that can lay the groundwork for a broader regional security process. To get there, smaller scale confidence building measures in areas of maritime security, pandemic preparedness, religious tourism and climate cooperation should be launched while regional red lines must be agreed upon. Tehran’s public and behind the scenes support for a ceasefire in Yemen is also crucial, but beyond that Riyadh should seek Iran’s commitment to halt the transfer of lethal aid to Yemen. Iran would no doubt benefit from the shift in Saudi Arabia’s approach away from containment and the resumption of diplomatic ties with the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s blessing of the JCPOA process and sanctions relief would build incremental trust.