Saudi Arabia-Iran: the rapprochement that could boost peace in the Middle East

The two powers in the region, which have been at loggerheads since 2016, would be willing to establish relations. This decision will undoubtedly bring stability to the troubled Middle East region
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Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have been at loggerheads for years, may be close to establishing formal relations. Recently, several international media reported on an alleged meeting between senior Iranian and Saudi officials in Baghdad. The governments of the two countries did not report on the meeting, which was intended to bring them closer together.

The two Middle Eastern powers severed diplomatic relations in 2016, with episodes such as Iran storming the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Since then, ties between the two nations have been strained by conflicts in the region, such as the war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has accused Iran on numerous occasions of supporting the Houthi rebels, militias that the Riyadh-led coalition is fighting in the country.

Another area where the two countries are at loggerheads is Syria. Tehran has supported the Syrian government as it tries to expand its influence in the country through Shia militias. In contrast, Saudi Arabia does not have a good relationship with Bashar al-Assad. Moreover, Riyadh was one of the proponents of Syria's expulsion from the Arab League.

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PHOTO/REUTERS -  Armed Houthis on the back of a truck in Sana'a, Yemen

Saudi Arabia and Iran not only fight on the geopolitical level in the Middle East, but also have a rivalry in the religious sphere. The Saudi kingdom represents the Sunni branch of Islam while Iran is the largest Shia Muslim country, representing and supporting Shia groups in the region.

The Iranian nuclear race has also raised misgivings in Riyadh. Tehran's recent decision to begin enriching its uranium supply to 60 per cent purity may have been the trigger for the two nations to consider a rapprochement.

Saudi Arabia takes the first step

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) expressed his desire to de-escalate tensions with Iran in an interview a few days ago. "Iran is a neighbouring country. All we ask is to have a good and distinguished relationship with Iran. We don't want the situation with Iran to be difficult", Bin Salman said, confirming the possibility of rapprochement. MBS also alluded to the stability and prosperity of the Middle East, which would benefit from such a union. "We have Saudi interests in Iran, and they have Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia, which should boost prosperity and growth in the region and the whole world", he added.

Four years ago, a rapprochement with Iran was unthinkable for the prince. "The common ground on which we can agree with this regime is non-existent", MBS said in an interview. But what has changed in the last four years to make the Saudi heir give the go-ahead for a rapprochement with Iran?

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PHOTO/REUTERS - Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Since the United States left the nuclear deal, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has warned on numerous occasions that Iran is not respecting the pact. The IAEA announced in 2020 that Iran was ten times over its uranium stockpile limit. By currently enriching uranium to 60 per cent it is approaching the 90 per cent needed to produce an atomic bomb, according to Iranian state media. The nuclear threat posed by Iran may have prompted Saudi Arabia to seek closer ties with Tehran.

The need to find a solution to the extensive wars raging in the Middle East in which these countries are directly or indirectly involved may also be one of the reasons for the possible rapprochement. Countries such as Syria, Yemen and Iraq have been bleeding to death for years, while their conflicts destabilise other nations in the region. Allies Saudi Arabia and the United States met on Friday to push for a peace process and a ceasefire in Yemen. "The two sides reviewed joint efforts to reach a political solution to the Yemeni crisis", the Saudi news agency SPA reported. Also, in seeking a cessation of violence, Riyadh proposed a truce to the Iranian-linked Houthi rebels.

These measures offer hope for Yemen, which is suffering the world's largest humanitarian tragedy according to the UN. Eighty per cent of Yemen's population needs assistance to meet their basic needs.

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AFP/ ESSA AHMED - Camp in Abs, in the Hajjah governorate of northern Yemen, on 3 September 2020.

"Our problem is Iran's negative behaviour, from its nuclear programme, to its support for outlawed militias in the region, to its launching of ballistic missiles", declared MBS. Nevertheless, the Saudi prince conveyed his hope "to build a good and positive relationship with Iran that will benefit all parties".

Tehran has welcomed Saudi Arabia's change of tone. "With negotiations and a constructive outlook, the two important countries of the region and the Islamic world can leave their differences behind and enter a new phase of cooperation and tolerance to bring stability and peace in the region", said Saeed Khatibzadeh, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman. Iran has also claimed to be "a pioneer in regional cooperation".

Nevertheless, the mistrust and rivalry between the two powers continues to simmer. On Saturday, Eshaq Jahangiri, the Iranian vice-president, accused Saudi Arabia and Israel of leaking a recording of the foreign minister. "I think there is an Israeli-Saudi conspiracy behind the recording", he said. The recording is allegedly related to the Vienna negotiations. This shows the complexity of the process of rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran.

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AFP/HO/PRESIDENCIA IRANÍ - Iranian President Hassan Rohani with the head of the nuclear technology organisation Ali Akbar Salehi.
The US continues to regard Iran as "the main threat"

Saudi Arabia is, along with Israel, Washington's main ally in the region. However, relations between the two countries have cooled due to Joe Biden's criticism of the Kingdom. The US government published a report on journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which exposed Crown Prince MBS as the instigator of his murder. However, Washington did not impose sanctions on Riyadh. The US also suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia in order to withdraw its intervention in Yemen.

Riyadh, aware of the new course imposed by the White House, has changed its behaviour. With the arrival of the new US president, several prisoners were released and the blockade with Qatar ended. Last week, the Saudi king invited the emir of Doha. Saudi Arabia has had to adapt to the new Democratic president and his goals of advancing human rights. However, during the Trump administration, the two countries strengthened their ties.

Washington has yet to comment on this process of rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Nevertheless, the US administration has produced its annual intelligence report, known as the Annual Threat Assessment, in which it classifies Iran as the 'top threat'. A threat not only to the US, but also to its allies in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia.

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REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE - US President-elect Joe Biden addresses protests in and around the US Capitol in Washington as the US Congress holds a joint session to certify the results of the 2020 election.
Iraq's role

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazemi has brokered the talks between the two countries' authorities. "Both need several rounds to break the ice and build trust between them", a senior Iraqi official told Middle East Eye. He also described the initial negotiations as "promising", saying that the dialogue continues under Iraq's organisation, which "will play a positive role in the region". "Both sides have a strong desire to resolve their disputes", he added.