During the past few months, meetings amongst officials from Saudi Arabia and Iran have left the world wondering if an amicable relationship can burgeon between these two notorious rivals. In a modern Middle East marked by historical normalizations between Israel and a number of Arab states and a waning of American influence, Saudi Arabia and Iran remain notably sidelined, thus leaving them to recognize the usefulness of a pragmatic relationship. The most recent severing of diplomatic ties between the two came after the storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran following the execution of prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimer al-Nimr by the Saudi’s in 2016. Since then, Saudi Arabia has vocally supported former president Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against the Islamic Republic, and the two regional opponents have broken off all diplomatic relations. Despite their bitter history and considerable ideological differences, recent diplomatic efforts made between Saudi Arabia and Iran present a positive opportunity for improved regional cooperation amid a hastened U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East.
Without a doubt, any successful diplomatic arrangement between the Kingdom and the Islamic Republic will have to address the war in Yemen. To effectively do this, Saudi Arabia has to mend its fractured relationship with Iran before it can properly broker a deal with the Houthis. Although Iran does not have absolute authority over the actions of the Houthis一the main anti-government insurgency in the country一the Islamic Republic maintains a highly influential position over the group that could help ensure Saudi security on its Southern border, where the majority of Houthi missiles are located. It is unlikely that Tehran will sever ties with the Houthis entirely, but a deal of this sort could alleviate Saudi concerns about cross-border missile strikes. In addition, Iran can pressure the Houthis to reconsider Saudi Arabia’s ceasefire agreement crafted earlier this spring, which includes the lifting of a Saudi air-and-sea blockade, the reopening of the airport in Sana’a, and the passing of essential imports through the Houthi-controlled Hudaydah seaport. With an overall de-prioritization of the Middle East by recent U.S. administrations, the Kingdom is aware that it can no longer count on significant U.S. support for the war and that its human and monetary costs are becoming increasingly damaging– making a diplomatic partnership with Iran even more enticing. A concordance over the six-year-long war will, at minimum, serve as a low-cost trust building opportunity where the two states can cooperate on certain issues; and at its best, catalyze a belated end to one of the world’s greatest humanitarian disasters and serve as a platform for further coordination on other matters of contention.
With Iran’s nuclear program in full swing and the JCPOA being resumed in Vienna, Saudi Arabia finds itself in a position where it can choose to either work with an enemy or accompany Israel as a spoiler. Evidently, Saudi Arabia’s willingness to rejoin the negotiating table indicates the former. Not long ago, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif proposed a diplomatic initiative known as the Hormuz Peace Endeavor, or HOPE, which sought to establish a forum where Arab states could address their shared concerns, defend their interests, and address Iran’s nuclear program through open dialogue. This seemingly quixotic proposal was shot down by the Saudis in 2019, but nevertheless indicated Iran’s aspirations for a strong and cordial community of countries in a region free from outside interference. This chain of events seems quite unusual in context with the broader rhetoric coming from both sides, keeping in mind that Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman famously declared that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “makes Hitler look good” less than three years ago. It seems that the Crown Prince has made a sharp pivot in his rhetoric, with recent comments expressing that the Kingdom is “seeking good relations with Iran,” evidently choosing to place the country’s interests over his own partiality. Ultimately, opportunities for diplomatic dialogue have always been an option between the two foes, but a long-lived reliance on Washington to settle their issues was the preferred method by the Saudi’s.
As the administration in Iran shifts from placid reformist Hassan Rouhani to long avowed hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, the attitude towards Saudi Arabia treads a novel path. Following his dubious election in June, president-elect Raisi has expressed that Iran is “ready to reopen embassies” and restore relations with all countries. Officials even noted that Iranian officials invited Saudi diplomats to Raisi’s inauguration in early August. In general, engagement and dialogue with Iran’s neighbors seem to be at the top of Raisi’s agenda and a priority for the new administration. For Yemenis or Syrians, this trajectory towards an agreeable relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is favorable and long-awaited; but for regional powers like Israel, this becomes unsettling since an alliance between these powers could cement a very powerful anti-Israel front in the region. Although unlikely, a strong partnership between Iran and Saudi Arabia could even stir up memories of a once hopeful pan-Arabism movement pioneered by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser in the mid-20th century, and instead of pushing for a unified Arab identity, the push could be towards an all-inclusive Islamic front that bands together Sunni-majority and Shia-majority governments alike. Regardless, a regional consensus that rivalry is expensive has prompted adversaries to settle their differences by virtue of prioritizing and protecting their own domestic and regional interests. For Iran, the slightest glimmer of sanctions relief is attractive enough to leave behind its reputation as a regional spoiler; and for the Saudi’s, free and open access through the invaluable Strait of Hormuz, combined with reduced defense spending, is attractive. With the Crown Prince’s plan to wean the country off of oil revenues by 2030, a reduction in arms spending can be just what he needs to modernize the economy and maintain currency among his people amid the increasing human rights violations he continues to be charged with. In Iran’s case, the incoming administration is particularly eager to mollify Riyadh’s opposition towards the revival of the JCPOA as it could help in offsetting Israel’s fervent condemnation of the deal. With every day that passes, Iran flexes its nuclear leverage, so a region with fewer Iranian enemies will likely be prioritized by Gulf states and abiding rivals alike. Essentially, any agreement between these two will need to guarantee a future for Iran’s nuclear program and protect the movement of Saudi vessels through the Persian Gulf.
The Saudis are aware of their shortcomings relative to Iran. The country is entangled in an expensive war in Yemen, vulnerable to attacks from Iranian drones, and on the losing side in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Likewise, the country is beginning to realize that once the nuclear agreement is re-signed and Iran is freed from decades of international isolation, they will be in the best position if their former enemy becomes their regional partner. As for Iran, if the current trajectory prevails and competition between the Islamic Republic and Turkey continues to swell, the country will find itself in a better position if they retain assurance from the Kingdom that it will refrain from fully backing such foes. Above all, Iran could use a friend–especially one that could be both a strategic trade partner and a counterweight to persisting American enmity.
Initial progress emerging from these negotiations will likely include a commitment from Tehran and Riyadh to stabilize and secure the Gulf. If materialized, talks about arms control and non-proliferation will eventually follow一signaling to others in the region such as the UAE, Qatar, Egypt, and Israel that old fashioned diplomacy is once again an option and can be conducted without Western mediation. What Washington can do一and should do一is provide tacit reassurance to the Saudis to signal that going through with these negotiations is endorsed by the United States. After all, a Middle East untroubled by Iranian and Saudi antagonism is a more peaceful Middle East. These Gulf rivals have a long way to go until one can expect the Crown Prince and Raisi to sit down and have chai together; nevertheless, these rudimentary steps grant the best chance at regional stability that we have seen in years.