While everyone’s attention was focused on the start of another round of nuclear talks in Vienna between Iran and the EU3+3, there have been signs of a diplomatic break in the bitter rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. On Tuesday, May 13th, Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said that he would welcome a visit from his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. The invitation has spurred speculation that Saudi Arabia was softening its stance on Iran looking for ways to deescalate Sunni-Shi’a tensions in the region. Indeed, even US secretary of State John Kerry said he was delighted by the Saudis’ invitation. This turn of events begs two interrelated questions. First, why did the Saudis change their approach to dealing with Iran? And second, how much of a change are the Saudis willing to make?
The easy answer to the first question is that the Rouhani government has been able to charm the Saudis much in the same way it has charmed the rest of the international community. Shortly after his election Rouhani made it clear that he wanted better relations with Saudi Arabia. Moreover, he already had a history of working with Saudi King Abdullah ibn Abdilazīz. Iran’s diplomatic efforts toward Saudi Arabia were also guided by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had established his credentials with Riyadh in the 1990s when he orchestrated an earlier rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. While the Saudis were initially skeptical, Rouhani and his representatives were able to convince them after several months of back-channel diplomacy.
Although this explanation is plausible, and there is little doubt that Riyadh feels more comfortable with Rouhani than they did with the man he replaced, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia go deeper than personalities. The Saudis still do not trust the conservative elite that make up the backbone of the Iranian regime regardless of who holds the presidency. Moreover, the recent tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia did not begin to with the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005. They began with invasion of Iraq in 2003, while Muhammad Khatami was still president. From that point on, Iranian-Saudi relations gradually deteriorated under the weight of regional events such as the Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon, and the Arab Spring. Ahmadinejad actually visited Riyadh in 2007.
At present, the regional environment is still not conducive to good Iranian-Saudi relations. Tehran and Riyadh continue to compete in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. In part this competition is driven by both state’s desire for status and leadership, but it is also a defensive struggle that neither side can afford to lose. Iran needs to maintain a network of regional influence as part of its deterrent strategy against the west and Israel. The Saudis fear encirclement, particularly since the start of the Arab Spring. They see Tehran consolidating its influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and potentially extending it through the Shi’a populations to the south along the Arabian Peninsula.
What has changed is that the Saudi’s efforts to keep Iran isolated are failing. The United States has made it very clear that it is committed to following through on the nuclear negotiation process regardless of its Israeli and Saudi protests. Since the negotiations began, Iran has been host to a number of European trade delegations. While this has been happening, several long-standing rifts within the GCC have suddenly re-emerged. Both Qatar and Oman have long chaffed at Saudi domination within the organization and preferred maintaining proper diplomatic relations with Iran. Recently, tensions between Doha and Riyadh erupted when Qatar refused to cut ties with Egypt’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The spat grew so intense that Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain and the UAE recalled their ambassadors. The Saudi even accused Doha of conspiring with the late Muammar Gaddafi to assassinate King Abdullah and threatened to block Qatar’s land and sea borders. Not surprisingly, Doha responded by improving relations with Tehran. Oman, for its part, recently conducted joint naval maneuvers with Iran and signed a $1bn gas pipeline agreement with Tehran. Finally, the situation in Syria appears to have been reversed. With military help from Hezbollah and the Iranian government, Bashar al-Assad is on the offensive. He may not be able to ‘win’ the civil war but the momentum has swung back in the regime’s direction. To make matters worse for Riyadh, Iran recently brokered a deal between the opposition in Homs and the Assad regime, allowing rebel forces to withdrawal. It would seem that even the Saudi’s allies in Syria feel the need to engage Iran.
Conversely, if the Saudis had been convinced that they could trust Iran, it is hard to explain why Riyadh was complaining about US policy at virtually the same time they were extending the invitation to Tehran. Indeed, the Saudi “invitation” came during a press conference covering the visit of US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, which was intended to deal with the growing rift between Riyadh and Washington. In a subsequent interview, Prince Saud al-Faisal complained about “super-powers” putting their own national interest ahead of the “sovereignty and independence of less powerful states.” While he did not name the United States outright, the target of his ire was obvious. It is also difficult to understand why Riyadh continued to press a union plan for the GCC. The Saudi proposal was mostly symbolic, but the apparent goal was to bolster the GCC as an anti-Iranian alliance.
Assuming the Saudis are reacting to a weakening of the anti-Iranian alliance instead of some new-found trust in the Iranian government, it is hard to be optimistic about the second question. Rather than fundamentally changing their policies toward Tehran, Riyadh is likely maneuvering for position. Opening talks with Iran now may yield some concessions. For example, there has been speculation that Iran promised to cooperate with the Saudis in solving the political stalemate in the Lebanese government. Talking also looks better than trying to force hardline policies like a GCC union, and failing. If nothing else, talking also allows Riyadh to bide its time. Although the Saudi’s position is on the wane now, it will likely improve in the not-too-distant future. First, the nuclear talks are hardly a sure thing, if they fail, the US will be back on side. Even if the talks succeed, no one expects them to yield the kind of “Grand Bargain” that would allow the US and Iran to reestablish their pre-revolutionary alliance. In short, the US will still need the Saudis one way or the other. Oman and Qatar will also come back, probably. Both states have had similar spats with Saudi Arabia in the past, but they have always managed to patch things up. There are important economic and military connections between them and the rest of the GCC. Moreover, if independence is what Oman and Qatar want, there is a limit to how far they can get from Saudi Arabia before they get too close to Iran. In fact, there are already reports that the crisis with Qatar has been defused.
The Saudis have played this game with Iran before. When Hashemi Rafsanjani took over the Iranian presidency in 1989 he too launched a charm offensive. The Saudis response was a ‘start-stop’ diplomatic strategy. They signaled a willingness to talk, pocketed whatever concessions the Iranians would make, such as opposing Saddam Hussein’s attempt to annex Kuwait, but gave little in return. Eventually the Saudis were ready for a real rapprochement, but it was not until 1997, eight years later.