What made Saudi Arabia and Iran engage in direct talks?
Officials from both sides are sounding cautiously optimistic about the endeavor. “We have initiated some exploratory talks.
Saudi Arabia and Iran recently confirmed that they are engaging in direct negotiations to lower tensions between the two rivals and eventually normalize diplomatic relations. Officials from both sides are sounding cautiously optimistic about the endeavor. “We have initiated some exploratory talks. They are at a very early stage but we are hopeful,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, told Agence France-Presse on Tuesday.
On the Trend Lines podcast this week, Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, joined WPR’s Elliot Waldman to discuss the complicated history of the Saudi-Iranian relationship and the strategic calculus motivating Riyadh and Tehran to pursue a détente, as well as other recent developments in the Middle East.
Hussein Ibish: Saudi-Iranian relations have been continuously swinging back and forth along with a pendulum, going back to the Iranian Shah’s era, where relations were often good because both countries were under the U.S. security umbrella. They were both pro-U.S. Middle Eastern powers, but they still had a rivalry. They still often didn’t see eye-to-eye. That competition became much more intense after Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 when they really were on a collision course in terms of their vision for the future of the Middle East, which was totally incompatible. Their vision, for example, of Islam, and its relationship to the state. Who should have sway? Whether it was preferable to be a status quo power, like Saudi Arabia, or an explicitly revolutionary power, like Iran. And whether to be a republic or a monarchy. All of those things, among many others, are sources of tension and contradictions between Saudi Arabia and post-revolution Iran.
It became much worse. But even then, in the past 40 years, there have been ups and downs. That relationship has not always been absolutely confrontational. So it’s not surprising to see the tensions intensify and then ease, and then intensify and ease—that’s just the pattern. Relations got really bad after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. Basically, in the post-9/11 era, the U.S. really ended up strengthening Iran tremendously in the region without meaning to. It got rid of the Taliban in Afghanistan for a while, which was Iran’s most bitter enemy. And then it got rid of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which was Iran’s most potent enemy, and essentially set up a situation where Iran got much more powerful in the region vis-à-vis other rivals, and also where Iran’s ability to create, extend, maintain and promote a regional network of non-state actor allies, of armed gangs and militia groups that are answerable to Iran, became much stronger. Hezbollah became not just a Lebanese militia, but a transnational vanguard group in this network of Iranian proxy militias. Iran operates in Iraq, backing the Popular Mobilization Forces—not all of them, but many of them. They’re in Syria, and elsewhere.
The 2019 Iranian attacks on Saudi oil facilities really underscored the extent to which Saudi Arabia needed to talk to Iran.
Iran became a much more potent force, and that really set off tensions. During the Trump era, I think the Saudis and others were pleased by the maximum pressure sanctions, but I think that it was widely misunderstood in the United States that Saudi Arabia wanted either to have a war with Iran itself or for the United States to have a war with Iran. A few years ago, they might have welcomed the potential for a U.S. war with Iran that insisted on regime change. But they knew that was not going to happen. More recently, I think the sense grew that too much tension is not good for Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis had come to the conclusion—in many power centers, especially around the king himself—that some measures to decrease tensions were necessary.
After that, in the fall of 2019, the Iranians attacked—as part of their so-called maximum resistance campaign against Trump’s sanctions—Saudi Aramco facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in Saudi Arabia. The attack did tremendous damage to the Saudi oil industry and demonstrated enormous power in terms of precision guidance. I think there was only one projectile missile or drone that didn’t hit its target. It really underscored the extent to which Saudi Arabia needed to talk to Iran.
The final thing worth mentioning is that all American allies, not just globally, but particularly in the Middle East, face a situation where the old guarantor of their safety and of order is not as reliable as it once was. There’s a lack of American will, particularly in the Middle East, and in some cases a lack of ability. But more to the point, even where the ability is there, you can’t be sure the U.S. is going to run to your defense. The U.S. under Trump didn’t do a thing to respond to Iran after that attack on Saudi Aramco facilities. There are dozens of incidents and instances that show U.S. allies that Washington may lack either the ability or the will to act in their defense. So they need to pursue their own options, as well as maintaining a relationship with the U.S.
In a way, what you’re describing strikes me as a dynamic that’s playing out in many parts of the world, where the Trump era demonstrated the caprice or the unreliability of the U.S. as a partner and ally, and a lot of countries are realizing anew that they need to take matters into their own hands.
Hussein Ibish: That’s really interesting. Actually, I think that doubts about the U.S. in the Gulf region predate Trump. Trump was the last straw, but they go back all the way to Bill Clinton. When Clinton tried and failed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Camp David back in 2000, that was kind of a remarkable demonstration of U.S. ineffectiveness. Then you had, under George W. Bush, the invasion of Iraq, which the Gulf countries were totally opposed to. They begged the U.S. not to do it and thought it would be a disaster—and it was. So it became “America the ineffective,” plus “America the reckless.” And then Barack Obama turned his back on Hosni Mubarak in Egypt—which I don’t necessarily think was a bad idea. I think it was probably an OK policy. But it seemed to these Gulf Arab monarchies to be “America the unreliable,” in the sense that the U.S. wasn’t sticking by an old ally in a time of need, in a very capricious way. They didn’t understand why the U.S. would do that and wondered what it meant about them.
In the period between 2016 and 2019, Iran suffered a lot of setbacks. That made the Saudis feel like they could have a more mutual dialogue with the Iranians.
At the end of the Obama era, you have the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, which looked to them like they might be being abandoned. It didn’t happen, but they were worried. So then you had “America the feckless,” the bad friend. Then comes Trump, which is “America the crazy,” and you don’t know what it’s going to do. You might wake up in the morning and see him bombing Iran, or you might see him snogging with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif or President Hassan Rouhani in Geneva. You don’t know what the guy’s going to do. North Korea is a very good example. He went from “fire and fury” to “I’m in love.” Literally, “I’m in love with Kim Jong Un.”
So at that point, you have these things piling on top of each other. The reckless was added to the ineffective, and then was added the feckless, and then was added the loony. At no point has the U.S. ever fixed things. Now, I think Biden may be fixing “America the crazy.” That may go. But the sense that the U.S. is checking out is very strongly there.
What exactly do Iran and Saudi Arabia have to gain from exploring a de-escalation of tensions?
Hussein Ibish: Iran obviously feels that it’s been in a very advantageous position historically following the invasion of Iraq. The last 15 years have generally been a period of extreme gain for Iran, especially in the Arab world. I think they’ve been looking to essentially formalize their new hegemonic position by getting rivals in the Arab world—especially the Saudis, the Emiratis, and others—to recognize it in a way. To get them to say, “Alright, fine, you’re in this position of tremendous power in our region, and we will acquiesce to that.” I think that the Iranian goal is to consolidate their victories. And that’s what the Saudis feared they were being asked to do, to basically acquiesce to a lot of Iranian strategic and hegemonic gains in the Arab world, even in Sunni majority countries like Syria. Because of that, they were very reluctant to get into such a dialogue with Iran in most of the past decade, 15 years, et cetera.
One of the reasons they got interested before the stuff hit the fan with the Saudi Aramco attack, was that they started to get the feeling—and it’s true—that Iran had suffered a lot of setbacks during the Trump era. It wasn’t all due to Trump, but some of it was, and that by 2019, Iran was not the power that it was regionally in 2015. They had suffered serious setbacks in Iraq. They had suffered serious economic problems in their country. They were struggling to hold on to the position they had arrived at in Syria and were being pressed by Russia, by Turkey, and even Assad himself was looking for a way to get past them. The crisis in Lebanon also has weakened Hezbollah to a very large extent. Overall, in the past 15 years, Iran has gotten a lot stronger regionally. But in the period between 2016 and 2019, Iran suffered a lot of setbacks. So I think the Saudis also felt that they could have more mutual dialogue with the Iranians. It wouldn’t be a one-sided affair where an ascendant power was getting the acquiescence of lesser powers to their conquest. That it would be much more of a give and take, and that’s what they wanted.