Riyadh changing tack on Tehran: Mirage or oasis?
Saudi Arabia has sent a series of recent signals interpreted as willingness to de-escalate Tehran-Riyadh tensions, which have dominated the political landscape in the West Asia for a couple of years. But could these signals be taken seriously?
Speculations are surfacing that remarks by the Saudi crown prince in a CBS interview and some mediation efforts by third parties could be an early practical step on the reconciliation path, indicating the kingdom is posing for a shift in policy toward its northern neighbor.
In recent months, the Saudi leadership has been quietly trying to scale back its downright hostility vis-à-vis Iran.
The Saudi authorities, who formerly took turns to speak out against Iran in harsh terms, have been largely silent.
But in the wake of the September attack on the state oil giant Aramco, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is openly ditching threats.
Speaking to CBS’s 60 Minutes in an interview aired on September 29, the crown prince said for the first time that he prefers political approach towards Iran.
“The political and peaceful solution is much better than the military one,” he said.
The remarks came two years after rejecting dialogue with the Shia Iran and threatening to make war inside Iran.
“We know that the aim of the Iranian regime is to reach the focal point of Muslims,” he said in May 2017, pointing to Mecca and Medina.
“We will not wait until the fight is inside Saudi Arabia and we will work so that the battle is on their side, inside Iran,” he said.
A recent report by the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar suggests MBS’ words were not just rhetoric, as a purported trove of leaked documents show he was starting a process of setting up a joint task force with Washington aimed at regime change in Tehran.
Bin Salman’s remarks in the CBS interview, which were applauded in Iran, can’t be the result of some celestial enlightenment that descended on the crown prince.
In May 2017, Bin Salman was 31, fresh off a meeting with the newly elected Trump, brokered through his son-in-law Jared Kushner.
But now, the prince feels alone. The September 14 attack into Aramco facilities proved Saudi Arabia’s military vulnerability.
And Trump showed no real interest in defending Saudi Arabia and stressed America’s energy independence in the age of shale.
Trump is even pushing for talks with Iran, asserting that the differences between the US and Iran could be settled at the negotiating table.
With a realization of his country’s exposure, the crown prince is now expressing hope for a peaceful solution with Iran.
Meanwhile, media reports say Bin Salman has asked leaders of Iraq and Pakistan to speak to Iran about defusing tensions.
The New York Times, citing unnamed Iraqi and Pakistani officials, said MBS asked Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan to mediate during a meeting in Jeddah last month.
When Iraq's Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi visited Jeddah on September 25, MBS made the same request, according to a senior Iraqi official who spoke to the Times on the condition of anonymity.
Iranian officials have also welcomed such talks, with Iran’s parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani declaring that “direct dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia may solve many political and military problems in the region.”
Bin Salman is also willing to de-escalate the war in Yemen.
Riyadh has okayed the participation of representatives from the fugitive president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in fresh peace talks with the Houthis in Oman.
Will 2017 experience repeat?
The two sides have not exchanged ambassadors since January 2016, when Saudi Arabia cut off ties with Iran.
The pretext for the Saudi severance of ties, which followed a long period of worsening tensions, was attacks on its diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad by protesters angered over the execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on terrorism charges.
Despite the Iranian authorities condemned the attacks and sentenced the perpetrators, Riyadh opted to keep the door on dialogue with Tehran shut and let tensions between the two regional powers remain at an all-time high.
But there were speculations in 2017 that ties between the two sides could improve.
That year, Iran resumed sending hajj caravans to Saudi Arabia for the first time since the tragic Mina stampede in 2015 that left over 2,300 worshippers dead, including 464 Iranians.
In August 2017, then-Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir even shook hands with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in a rare encounter on the sidelines of an OIC meeting in Istanbul, a surprise for many observers who used to see the top Saudi diplomat excoriating Tehran.
Moreover, Iraqi Interior Minister Qasim Al-Araji was reported as saying during a 2017 visit to Iran that Saudi leaders have asked Baghdad to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh.
However, in September 2017, al-Jubeir dented optimism over a rapprochement, denying any warming of relations with Iran.
“If Iran wants to have good relations with Saudi Arabia, it has to change its policies. It has to respect international law,” Jubeir told a press conference in London in 2017.
But is Riyadh really having a true change of heart towards Iran this time? To form a judgment, let’s take a look at evidence.
Under President Hassan Rouhani, Iran has shown restraint toward what seen as the Saudi game of brinkmanship.
Speaking in a conciliatory tone, Tehran has spared no chance to invite its southern neighbor to dialogue on their differences and call for their cooperation in forming mechanisms to restore calm to the chaotic region.
But the oil kingdom has been spurning Iran’s overtures during all these years, claiming Iran is a hopeless case and negotiations won’t do any good.
It seems a combination of factors have prompted the House of Saud to take a pragmatic approach to mend fences with what it sees a bitter foe.
The 33-years-old crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has quickly moved up in the Saudi hierarchy, has faced setbacks associated with Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, particularly on Qatar and Yemen.
The ambitious prince, who effectively rules the country behind his desk at the royal palace, faces harsh outcomes resulting from serious miscalculations and his youthful bravado.
Failure to form anti-Iran coalition
Since taking the throne in January 2015, the new king and his son abandoned the kingdom's decades-long conservative foreign policy and employed an aggressive approach toward Tehran to challenge what they saw as Iran’s growing influence in the region.
The setbacks associated with this policy of trying to pull the carpet from under Iran’s feet in the region may have pushed the Saudi leadership to think about course corrections.
Shortly after coming to power, King Salman started trying to build an anti-Iran coalition to isolate Tehran, which fresh from years of sanctions after the 2015 nuclear deal was seeking to broaden its international engagement.
But one year later, when Riyadh cut relations with Iran, just a few of sidekick states toed the line and broke off contact with Iran, although the kingdom invited its allies to follow suit.
Even neighbors such as the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar fell short of its expectations by opting to only downgrade Tehran ties, and Oman kept its Iran relations untouched.
In January 2017, with the coming to power of Trump, who is deeply antagonistic towards Tehran, the Saudi government thought it is well positioned to achieve its long-sought goal.
Riyadh organized the so-called Arab Islamic American Summit the same year, where Salman and Trump–who was on an arms-selling trip to the Kingdom–took turns to vilify Iran as the top sponsor of terrorism and call on dozens of regional countries to work to isolate Tehran.
The Saudis, emboldened by the strong support by the US president, took steps days later to deal with Qatar's opposition to their anti-Iran designs.
In June 2017, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with Egypt and Bahrain, imposed a blockade of the peninsular nation and set conditions including that Doha should restrict ties with Tehran.
Perhaps Riyadh expected the tiny kingdom to come back to big brother cap in hand in no time, but the Qatari government facing megaphone diplomacy has so far weathered boycott and seems intent on outwaiting the Saudi-led bloc.
Even worse, the Saudi push has ended up with an imbroglio, as Qatar normalized its relations with Tehran and broadened trade ties with the country.
Despite employing checkbook diplomacy to tilt regional states toward the Saudi side, any hope of isolating Tehran shows yet no immediate sign of materializing.
Apparently, the Saudi project to form an anti-Iran coalition has come across a huge obstacle too and has not-so-bright prospects.
Unreliability of Trump
Another source of concerns for the Saudi government is the US, on which it has depended for its external security ever since Ibn Saud's meeting with Franklin Roosevelt during World War II.
Day by day, the Saudi government is feeling stronger that it can no longer rely solely on the US, whose influence in the region seems to be on the decline.
In May 2017, the Saudi government signed hundreds of billions of dollars of arms and other deals with Trump in Riyadh during his first overseas trip, apparently in a big investment to appease the capricious US president who at the election time had lashed out at Saudi Arabia as a lead supporter of terrorism and key provocateur in the region's disorders.
But the Saudi government may have come to the conclusion that they cannot rely on Trump’s assistance to sustain their regional policies, as Trump faces real risk of impeachment.
Besides, the businessman-turned-politician who has grown accustomed to rapidly changing positions seems to care more about money than loyalty.
The limits of Salman-Trump relationship have been shown time after time.
Shameful war in Yemen
The House of Saud's recurrent failures in achieving goals in Yemen are another bad news.
The Saudi invasion of Yemen has turned into a quagmire and turned the conflict in the country into a crisis of the first order.
The initial predication was that the war would last for a short period of time; however, over four years later, it is still raging and there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
The stated goal for the Saudi-led intervention in the poorest Arab country was to return to power Hadi and push back Ansarullah from the capital Sana’a.
But the expensive Saudi war machine has so far failed to achieve objectives.
The highly costly and unsuccessful US-backed intervention has drawn enormous criticism towards Saudi Arabia over mounting civilian casualties.
According to the UN, the world's largest humanitarian crisis is in Yemen and with the country's infrastructure and economy devastated, the prolonged military onslaught and all-out blockade, it is heading towards "total collapse."
The Saudi-led war in the 27-million-strong country has left more than 80% of the population reliant on some form of humanitarian aid and over seven million on the brink of starvation.
Perhaps much to Saudis’ surprise, Anarullah and its allies who form some 45% of the population are not yet wiped off the map.
Saudis seem to have sowed seeds of anti-Saudi hatred in Yemen that won’t ease unless House of Saud is history.
Syria dreams long gone
Moreover, developments in Syria and Bahrain are not going well in the eyes of Saudis.
In Syria, the House of Saud sees practically frustrated plans to topple the government, as the Syrian Army are wining round after round of battles and the lingering conflict is marching toward the end.
For over seven years, Saudi Arabia and some other west-aligned regional governments generously supplied arms and logistics to extremist militants fighting to bring down the Syrian government.
The struggle that has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced to create the worst manmade calamity in the 21st century.
But the Syrian forces, assisted by Iran's advisory support and Russia's air power, managed to turn the tide of the war in their favor.
Western and regional states that were until recently committed to toppling the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have now resigned to him staying.
Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbor who backed the militancy more than any other state, has joined Iran and Russia in the Astana peace initiative.
Unending conflict in Bahrain
Bahrain problems of the Saudi kingdom also seem unending.
The country has been plagued by unrest since 2011, when protesters comprised of the Shia majority staged their uprising to bring democracy to Bahrain.
The Bahraini monarch Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who is strongly backed by Saudi Arabia, has so far failed to answer calls for dialogue by demonstrators and instead has been struggling to quell the non-violent protests.
The government’s move to ban Al Wefaq, the largest opposition group, and revoke the citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassim, Bahrain’s most prominent Shia critic, provoked international condemnation and objections of human right organizations.
Although the opposition has become less vocal in the wake of successive crackdowns and systematic torture by Bahraini and Saudi agents, it has never really gone away.
And the increasingly authoritarian approach of the government does not bode well for future stability.
Apart from external problems, the situation inside Saudi Arabia is unfavorable too.
The treasury of the wealthy kingdom has come under undue pressure in recent years due to the costly interventions in various conflicts in the region.
Moreover, the Saudi government has to deal with its Shia population of the restive eastern Saudi Arabia, who for decades have complained of being treated as second-class citizens.
After the 2016 execution of Sheikh Nimr, the Saudi government has intensified its crackdown against its Shia inhabitants.
And don’t forget the Saudi billionaires who were forced to pay billions after Prince Mohammed detained them at a hotel in 2017. They are yearning for revenge and need to be controlled.
The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has practically dumped Saudi Arabia in the pit of pariah nations in the West.
These all label bin Salman as a failed leader unable to protect his country’s interests.
Reasons to be pessimistic
The need to manage two fronts, the domestic one against dissident and the foreign one in the region and further afield with hesitant US backing may push Bin Salman to seek reconciliation with Tehran.
However, although the House of Saud sees itself entangled in several embarrassing situations, this does not necessarily mean it is really ready to change tack on Iran.
There are a number of other reasons that make a genuine Tehran-Riyadh rapprochement something like a dream.
The split between the Islamic Republic and the absolute monarchy has roots in several geo-political factors.
The main cause of lingering tensions in Tehran-Riyadh can be traced back to 1979, when the Islamic Revolution succeeded in toppling the US-backed monarch Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was analogues to Saudi kings.
Fears of inspirational message of Iran’s revolution panicked the House of Saud, causing grave concerns over the future of the rule of their family over the land that until early 20th century was consisted of several local governments in Hijaz, Nejd and other parts of the Arabian Peninsula.
Saudi leaders bankrolled the bloody Iraqi invasion of Iran one year later and extended political backing to the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
After the war, Iran tried to forget bitter memories of the Saudi-backed offensive that cut short the life of almost a million people on both sides, and Tehran-Riyadh ties experienced a relatively warm period.
However, relations became particularly tense after the Arab Spring rocked the region in 2011, as the two regional powers stood on opposing sides in several conflicts.
But the real problem emerged after Salman bin Abdulaziz ascended to the throne, who only extended the long list of Tehran-Riyadh problems.
Another factor playing a role in widening fissures between the two countries is religious differences, which are not as important as the political ones but are older than them.
The House of Saud formed its government early 20th century with the assistance of Wahhabis, followers of a fanatical interpretation of Islam that sees all Shia as apostates punishable by death.
Since then, Wahhabism has been the state-sanctioned doctrine and the Saudis have long funded the construction and operation of Wahhabi mosques around the world to spread the sect.
Wahhabism is the trademark of many terror groups wreaking havoc in the Middle East and other regions, including the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.
Under the late king Abdullah, the Saudi government tried to keep an arms distance from Wahhabis and not to arouse anti-Shia sentiments.
But under King Salman, Saudi officials are actively encouraging anti-Shia rhetoric both at home and abroad, and are often highlighting religious differences with Iran to justify their political antagonism towards the country.
Tactical or strategic?
The assertive Mohammad bin Salman has shown such a deep antagonism toward Tehran that it seems hard to believe he has changed his mind about Tehran and started seeing the error of his ways.
So the changing tenor seems to suggest a change in tactics from Saudi Arabia with respect to Iran and not a desire to find solution to problems.
There are rumors that Mohammad bin Salman will soon replace his aged father, and the Saudi attempts at easing tensions and even dialogue with Tehran can help them manage the status quo until the young prince officially takes the helm and can freely pursue his own designs.
Less tensions with Tehran will also help the House of Saud not to burn all its bridges with Iran in a volatile region and gives it more room for maneuver in case it needs to adopt an alternative regional policy.
The Saudi government can also wait to see the fate of the 2020 US election, as Trump vies for reelection.
Although a friendship between Tehran and Riyadh seems out of reach, a lessening of tensions due to tactical decisions is in Saudi Arabia’s interests, as well as in the interests of Iran.
The normalization of ties between the two powerhouses could have profound impact on the region deeply embroiled in conflicts.
But unless the path of fence-mending dialogue is not actually opened, one cannot expect the settlement of differences.