Bitter rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran have engaged in a growing number of back channel and public diplomatic meetings during recent months, but U.S. sources and regional experts say tension continues to soar between them.
While the Sunni Muslim monarchy in Saudi Arabia has eased a once-impregnable diplomatic blockade of the Shiite-dominated theocracy in Iran, the two nations remain locked in a proxy war in Yemen and divided over Tehran’s backing of militias blamed for destabilizing Iraq.
The Saudis, who lost an unflinching supporter in Washington with former President Donald Trump’s defeat, have spent the past year scrambling to reorient their regional posture in response to the Biden administration’s more ambiguous Mideast policy. The kingdom is particularly wary of President Biden’s push to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — a development likely to result in major sanctions relief for Tehran and a surge of cash and weapons for Iranian allies.
Talks toward reviving the deal that Mr. Trump repudiated in 2018 are slated to resume Nov. 29 in Vienna, with Iranian officials recently signaling they’ll meet directly with their U.S. counterparts for the first time since Mr. Biden took office.
But even as debate swirls around the nuclear talks, there has been an unexpected thaw in Saudi-Iranian relations, with Iranian officials even contending that discussions with the Saudis were “on the right track” following a September meeting in Baghdad. For Iran, the talks are a way to ease a near-united hostile front among Gulf Arab powers over its regional ambitions. For the Saudis, the talks are a way to hedge some bets as Mr. Biden brings into question U.S. commitment to the region and Syrian President Bashar Assad, an Iranian ally, appears to be consolidating power once again in Damascus.
“We have achieved results and agreements, but we still need more dialogue,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told reporters when asked about the direct talks with the Saudis, according to Agence France-Presse.
To date, Saudi and Iranian officials have held four rounds of talks in Iraq, which with sizable Shiite and Sunni populations has been especially anxious to bring the two regional powers together, in addition to a meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly gathering in New York in September.
But details remain scarce and the talks have not kept bilateral tensions from soaring on repeated occasions. Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran in 2016 after protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran in retaliation for the kingdom’s execution at the time of a prominent Shiite cleric.
“The Saudis and the Iranians are having back channel diplomatic meetings, but this has not changed the current situation of tension and competition,” says Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a Middle East expert with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “These meetings are not connected to any structural position or policy developments. They are more maneuvers that each side is using in different ways.”
Pushing a false narrative
Mr. Abdul-Hussain said in an interview that Iranian leaders are trying to characterize the talks as a sign that Saudi Arabia is seeking to accommodate a rising Iran, effectively accepting Tehran as a regional power whose influence is growing despite U.S. and Israeli attempts to contain it. Iran has been far more willing to acknowledge the talks have taken place than have the Saudis.
“Whenever the Iranians say they’re hanging out with the Saudis, their tone is one of, ‘Hear ye, hear ye, the Saudis have conceded to us. Anyone who still thinks it’s wise to stand up to Iran better change their mind because even the Saudis have come crawling,’” he said.
Others say the more ambivalent recent U.S. support for the Saudis under Mr. Biden — a product of the U.S. administration’s desire to focus on China and its criticisms of key Saudi foreign policy and domestic initiatives under de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — has made the Saudi leadership more willing to talk with the Iranian regime. Jennifer Gavito, deputy assistant secretary for Iran and Iraq at the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, told CNBC in an interview last month that the U.S. supported direct talks.
“We welcome any direct talks that lead to greater peace and stability in the region,” Ms. Gavito said.
While Washington under Mr. Trump backed a messy Saudi bombing campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, Mr. Biden formally ended the support in February. The Biden administration also removed the Houthis from the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list — a move widely seen as an attempt to entice Iran into rejoining nuclear talks with Washington.
Riyadh was outraged by the move, which came amid Houthi attacks on targets inside Saudi Arabia. Over the past six years, the Tehran-backed rebels have targeted military installations and critical oil infrastructure in the kingdom, while defying an intense bombing campaign led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in support of Yemen‘s previous leadership.
The Houthis and the Iranians have also been accused of going after airports. In August, Riyadh blamed the Houthis for flying a bomb-laden drone into an airport in southwestern Saudi Arabia, a strike that wounded eight people.
A high-level U.S. national security source in contact with individuals directly involved in the Saudi-Iran talks, said the Saudis and other Persian Gulf states, including the UAE, are eager to “lower the temperature” with Tehran.
“The Saudis are trying to lower the likelihood that Iran will conduct additional drone and terror attacks against the kingdom,” said the source, adding that Riyadh is also pursuing talks because the U.S. and the international community are unwilling to truly confront Iran over its backing of militant proxies such as the Houthis and Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement.
Frustration over such backing triggered a new regional diplomatic spat in late October, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait all pulling their ambassadors from Lebanon, which has fallen increasingly under the control of Hezbollah.
The four Gulf Arab powers acted in response to comments by a Hezbollah-aligned Lebanese minister who had publicly criticized the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.
Hezbollah is listed by Washington as a terrorist organization, and the Saudis accuse the group of helping the Houthis in Yemen. The Associated Press has noted that both groups have strong ties to Iran, and consider themselves part of the so-called axis of resistance that includes the Syrian government and Shiite militias in Iraq.
Chance for detente?
Abdulaziz Sager, who heads the Gulf Research Center, and former senior Iranian diplomat Hossein Mousavian have argued that both Iran and Saudi Arabia perceive the other to be keen on dominating the region.
“Riyadh views Iran as intent on encircling the kingdom with its allied non-state actors; Tehran views Riyadh as a key facilitator of U.S. efforts to contain and undermine the Islamic Republic,” Mr. Sager and Mr. Mousavian wrote in a commentary published early this year by British newspaper The Guardian.
“Riyadh considers Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal to be a threat to its national security, especially its critical infrastructure. Tehran regards the kingdom’s purchase of large quantities of sophisticated Western arms as exacerbating the conventional weapons asymmetry in the region,” they wrote, adding that “Riyadh charges Iran with interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states such as Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Iraq,” while “Tehran sees Saudi Arabia doing the same in these very countries.”
“We remain at the mercy of a single miscalculation that could turn the protracted cold war between our states hot, potentially ushering in disastrous consequences for the entire region,” Mr. Sager and Mr. Mousavian wrote, arguing that the arrival of a new administration in Washington offered a chance to “move from confrontation to dialogue.”
But the prospect of a serious Saudi-Iran rapprochement remains dim.
“It’s possible you could have restoration of diplomatic relations, but in no way should this be confused with the Gulf changing its views on Iran in the region or Iran changing its ambitions in the region,” said the high-level national security source who spoke on condition of anonymity with The Washington Times. “It’s a profound error if anyone thinks otherwise.”
Daniel Roth, research director at the bipartisan advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran, also argues there is “no way there’s going to be a thaw anytime soon.”
“The Iranians are literally funding terrorists who’ve recently carried out attacks inside Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Roth said in a recent interview. “Iran is always trying to push the idea of a Saudi-Iran detente, like a kind of … brotherhood or joining together as enemies against the United States, but I think the Saudis know [better].”
Said Mr. Abdul-Hussain, “The Iranians are also always telling everyone that, ‘America will be leaving the region sooner or later, but we will still be here.’ In other words, ‘Don’t bet on America to have your back.’”
The catch, he said, is that “the Saudis are not crawling to the Iranians,” and while the Saudis may agree the U.S. is withdrawing, Riyadh remains deeply suspicious of Iran‘s intentions. “If anything, the perspective that the Americans are leaving is actually pushing the Saudis to embrace the idea of a regional coalition that can stand up to Iran.”
Such sentiment, Mr. Abdul-Hussain added, may ultimately motivate closer relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, the sworn enemy of Iran.
But Riyadh has resisted joining the historic Abraham Accords diplomatic normalizations that other Gulf Arab powers — most notably the Emiratis and Bahrainis — have recently embraced with Israel. And, some in the region believe talk between the Saudis and the Iranians is a necessity to reduce the prospect of a major war between the bitter rivals.
“At the very least, an incremental process of detente might lower political and strategic temperatures in the Gulf while winning a measure of support from Western leaders,” Daniel Brumberg, a senior fellow with the Arab Center in Washington, argued in a commentary published by the think tank last month.
“Detente,” Mr. Brumberg wrote, “is more about managing rather than transcending conflicts.”