This might be the year that changes everything in the Middle East. The reason: a possible thaw in Saudi Arabian–Iranian relations.
Several factors led to this moment. First is the election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran in August 2013. Since elected, Rouhani has initiated a charm offensive aimed at reducing tensions between Tehran and several of its Arab Gulf neighbors. Iran's foreign minister even arrived in the kingdom for a rare visit to the regional rival, bringing condolences after the death of King Abdullah.
Then there this the interim nuclear agreement, which undermined the kingdom’s standing as the region’s de facto powerhouse and raised Iran’s stature as a rising international power. Next came the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) tromping through Iraq and Syria, a threat to both Iran and Saudi Arabia and its conservative Wahhabi clerical establishment. Meanwhile, apparent U.S. fatigue with the Middle East left the Gulf countries without much U.S. support. And, recognizing Iran’s superior position, they had no choice but to start making nice with Iran.
And, finally, there is the successsion of a new Saudi King to the throne.
However, despite the emergence of shared interests, including defeating ISIS, it is unrealistic to expect that all this will translate into an immediate thaw in Saudi-Iranian relations, given the hostility that has accumulated since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the strategic considerations that will still guide the two countries.
For a long time, Saudi-Iranian relations had been worsening by the year. For the Sunni Arab monarchies, the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran was galling; with his poisonous rhetoric, he constantly reminded his neighbors of Iran’s hegemonic goals. The Arab Spring, which seemed to undermine the old Middle Eastern political and sectarian balance, heightened tensions. Not helping matters was Tehran’s support for Syria’s embattled Bashar al-Assad regime and for the former Nouri al-Maliki regime in Iraq. By late last year, Iran and its allies seemed to have the upper hand in both countries, as well as in Lebanon and Yemen.
While officially maintaining cordial relations with Tehran, Saudi Arabia worked behind the scenes to rein in Iran’s influence. Saudi Arabia used soft power and hard currency as part of this effort while deploying its military against real or perceived Iranian involvement in Bahrain and Yemen. For its part, Tehran preferred to maintain cordial relations with Riyadh, too, while trying to undermine its rival through covert attacks, including allegedly attempting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington in 2011 and launching targeted cyberattacks against Aramco facilities and Saudi government websites. The two countries also took advantage of the many weak post–Arab Spring governments by fomenting unrest among sectarian minorities.
Things began to change immediately following the election of Rouhani. The new leader began a campaign to end Iran’s regional and international isolation and, especially, the economic sanctions on the country. He did so by trying to drive a wedge between the country’s enemies and reduce tensions between Iran and several of the Gulf states.
First, he exploited existing differences between some of the smaller Gulf states and Saudi Arabia to prevent them from forming a united front against Iran by attempting to convince them that times are changing and they are better off having good relations with Iran. The main goal was to isolate Saudi Arabia, which is Iran’s most significant ideological and religious competitor, the main sponsor of Iran’s enemies across the world, and the only country in the Gulf region with the economic and military wherewithal to take on the Islamic Republic.
At the same time, it was important for Iran to change its negative image, and for that, the country had to grow closer, albeit in a restrained way, to the Arab Gulf countries. The Iranian charm offensive included several visits abroad by the Iranian president and foreign minister, interviews and articles placed in Gulf media outlets, statements about the need for unity and cooperation in the Muslim world, and even a series of trade and tourism agreements with several countries in the region.
To be sure, these efforts were somewhat undermined by the ongoing nuclear negotiations, which struck fears of a nuclear Iran throughout the region. Just before Iran and the P5+1 negotiators signed the interim nuclear agreement in late 2013, which was extended again in late 2014, Tehran attempted to ease the tension. In an article in a pan-Arab newspaper, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on his neighbors to build a new regional order free from external intervention. “The presence of foreign forces has historically resulted in domestic instability within the countries hosting them,” he wrote, “and exacerbated the existing tensions between these countries and other regional states.” Since U.S. bases in the Gulf are seen as the main barrier to Iranian hegemony in the region, his words didn’t go over quite as well as he might have hoped. Of course, the Arab monarchies did not deviate from their strategy of taking a moderate and restrained official position.
STRIKE A DEAL
The Sunni and Arab states were thrown together once more thanks to developments in Syria and Iraq. By now, many in the Gulf are worried that the rebels will not be able to defeat Assad, which might lead Riyadh to strike a deal with Iran (and Assad’s other patron, Russia) on Syria’s political future. Rapprochement between the leader of the Sunni front and the leader of the Shiite front may also affect the situation in Iraq. Meanwhile, quiet coordination between Saudi Arabia and Iran has already led to the election of a new prime minister in Iraq and could also help in the fight against ISIS.
The Gulf monarchies are anxiously following ISIS’ land grab. As long as the organization was just menacing Iraq, and Iran was stretching its resources thin in order to fight it, Gulf countries were happy. But now that the organization is increasingly threatening Arab states’ own interests, including Saudi Arabia’s ownterritory, and Iran is coordinating with the United States in the battle, the picture has changed. The Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, might want to tacitly (and tactically) cooperate with Iran to make sure that the radical ISIS crosses no further borders. The two countries have proven in the past that they are pragmatic and willing to adjust their positions when required by the circumstances.
Accordingly, at the meeting between Zarif and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal at the sidelines of the September 2014 UN Security Council session, Zarif heralded “a new page in relations between the two countries.” Faisal was more cautious, focusing his remarks on the need to join forces against ISIS, noting, “We believe we must avoid the errors of the past to successfully confront the current crisis.”
At high-level talks about ISIS, however, discussions of oil prices seem to have interfered. A two-day meeting hosted by Oman in December 2014 reportedly broke up in acrimony, with Saudi and Iranian delegates at odds over the slump in oil prices. The current price plunge has been driven by Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s dominant power. Although it is true that Riyadh’s energy policy partially responds to the fracking revolution in North America, the greater motivation is, perhaps, breaking Iran’s will and, with it, putting a brake on its regional ambitions. A number of Saudi decision-makers seem to believe that the oil price drop is therefore serving the kingdom’s interests by hurting the already battered Iranian economy.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have adopted mixed foreign policies that include elements of both cooperation and conflict. With this approach, they can slowly improve relations across the Gulf while also maintaining their regional might. The two new-old partners have a long road to travel before they reach a historic reconciliation. For now, the Arab Gulf states fear that Iran has the upper hand, which is pushing them to tread carefully. That sentiment could last for the long term, especially if Iran’s star continues to rise. Although chances do not seem high at the present time, even the half cooperation that such fear would engender could help resolve some of the region’s most tangled conflicts.