Iran has sent a senior diplomat to Saudi Arabia for the first time since talks with the United States over the Iranian nuclear program began about a year ago. Historically rivals, Tehran and Riyadh have reached a point where they need to discuss the strategic situation in the region. In particular, the Islamic State jihadist movement has complicated the countries’ regional struggle for influence. Though significant, this round of diplomatic engagement between the Iranians and Saudis will remain tactical in nature and will be limited to efforts to keep their struggle within mutually acceptable parameters.
Iran’s deputy foreign minister for Arab-African Affairs, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, reportedly traveled to Saudi Arabia on Aug. 25. According to reports, Abdollahian will meet with the kingdom’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, to discuss the many regional issues behind the countries’ intensifying sectarian rivalry since the 2011 Arab Spring. Abdollahian’s is the first visit by a top Iranian official to Saudi Arabia since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took office last August.
Iran’s Advantage Dissipates
The Rouhani administration has been trying to de-escalate tensions with the Saudis, the region’s main Sunni power. There are a couple of reasons Riyadh has long rebuffed Tehran’s efforts. First, the Saudi leadership does not believe power in Iran resides with Rouhani, who seems to prefer dialogue to confrontation with regional players. Instead, the Saudis see the more hawkish factions within the clerical and security establishments as the true leaders of the country, and thus they see no point in talking to the Rouhani administration. Second, the Saudis viewed the moderate Rouhani administration as a tool in the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his closest associates — one with which this leadership core could pursue radical foreign policy ambitions under the guise of moderation.
The Saudi position with respect to Iran was weakened, however, when the Iranians began engaging with the kingdom’s main international ally, the United States, on the nuclear issue. U.S.-Iranian diplomacy seriously undermined the Saudi position, and Riyadh did not want to negotiate with Tehran while Iran was working from a position of strength. This situation continued until May, when the Saudi foreign minister invited his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, to visit the kingdom after it became clear that the U.S.-Iranian negotiations were encountering problems.
Already preoccupied with the nuclear issue, Zarif refused the invitation, citing scheduling conflicts. Such conflicts did exist, but Iran was also in no rush to meet with the Saudis. This is because Tehran held an advantageous position: Iran’s proxies had gained the upper hand in Syria, and in Iraq, parliamentary elections had further strengthened Tehran’s hand. The strategic picture changed dramatically for the Iranians, however, when a Sunni insurrection in Iraq led to the rise of the Islamic State and its self-declared caliphate.
The reversal on the Iraqi battlefield forced Iran to start searching for a replacement for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, even though his party won Iraq’s April 30 elections. Despite political changes in Baghdad, the military situation remains threatening and will stay that way until a significant number of Iraqi Sunnis turn against the Islamic State. For that to happen, the Iranians need the Saudis to use their influence over Iraq’s Sunni tribes.
Saudi Arabia’s Problems with Militancy
As bad as the situation in Iraq is for Tehran, it is even worse for Riyadh. The Islamic State’s advance undermines the Iranian and Shiite position, but it is a massive threat to the Saudi kingdom. The Islamic State is challenging Saudi Arabia’s leadership of the Salafist, Sunni and Islamic worlds. That is why the Saudis in March declared the Islamic State a terrorist organization and why they have been worried about the group’s influence within the kingdom and the threat it poses to Saudi Arabia’s northern border with Iraq.
Even on their southern border with Yemen, the Saudis are facing a jihadist threat from al Qaeda — a threat that the Islamic State’s gains have amplified. In addition, Saudi influence in Yemen has suffered since Saudi Arabia’s various proxies turned against one another, leading to the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012. The political situation in Yemen has enabled the country’s al-Houthi rebels to climb from provincial to national-level actors.
The al-Houthi movement has been aligning more with Iran and sees itself as akin to Hezbollah in Lebanon, a group that enjoys a major share of power in the Lebanese state. The Saudis need Iran’s help to deal with this situation. In essence, the strategic landscape for the Saudis and the Iranians has changed enough to force them to talk to one another.
The Focus of Talks
The Islamic State will be the focus of the talks. Ideally, the Saudis would like to harness the group as a way to roll back Iranian influence in the Arab world. The Saudis lack the means to control the Islamic State, however, and are in fact vulnerable to penetration by the group.
As a result, the two countries share an interest in cutting down the Islamic State by driving a wedge between it and the Sunni communities in which it has embedded itself. While not exactly in a position to bargain, the Saudis will want the Iranians to allow Iraqi Sunnis to hold a sizable share of power in Baghdad. Iran appears to have agreed, replacing al-Maliki with Haider al-Abadi, a move Riyadh has welcomed.
There is still much to be sorted out between Iran and Saudi Arabia, especially in Yemen, where a Lebanese model of power sharing may take shape at some point in the future. Both sides will also have to factor in the role of the United States, especially since both countries are now in a position to use relations with Washington against the other. Finally, there is the question of Syria, an issue that be more difficult for the two to handle given that the Saudis want to use Syria’s mostly Sunni population against Iran. For now, it seems Iran and Saudi Arabia will focus on Iraq and Yemen, while the war in Syria is likely to continue.
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