Is a Persian-Saudi thaw on the horizon?

Introduction

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s (MBS) recent comments, where he batted for better bilateral ties with Iran, have understandably drawn attention given that, in recent years, ties between both countries had hit rock bottom. Said MBS in a television interview on April 27, 2021:

At the end of the day, Iran is a neighbouring country and all that we hope for is to have good
relations.

MBS did not deny that Riyadh had differences with Tehran over a number of issues (specifically Iran’s nuclear program and some of the proxies which it was supporting in the Middle East).

The Saudi crown prince also said that his country wanted Iran to prosper, and to contribute to regional and global growth. Both countries have been jostling with each other for influence in the Middle East. In recent years, tensions have exacerbated as a result of Iran’s support for the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen, while a coalition of Sunni Arab forces has been backing pro-government forces. Riyadh, which like other GCC states has moved closer to Israel, has also accused Tehran of meddling in Iraq and Jordan, and for plotting a strike on Saudi oil installations in 2019. In 2016, both countries had cut diplomatic ties after Iranian protesters attacked the Saudi Embassy in Iran as a mark of protest against the kingdom’s execution of a respected Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.

Iran’s reaction to Saudi Crown Prince statement

Iran reacted positively to the Saudi crown prince’s statement, saying that this augured well for the bilateral relationship. Officials from Iran and Saudi Arabia had held talks in Baghdad in April (these talks were facilitated by Iraq) on a number of crucial issues.

Many analysts argue that MBS’ recent remarks are an indication of his acceptance of the Biden administration’s policy towards the Middle East, which is vastly different from that of the Trump administration. Not only has the Biden administration released a report which clearly holds MBS responsible for the murder of Egyptian journalist Jamal Khashoggi (former President Donald Trump, who shared a close rapport with MBS, refused to release the report), but it has also withdrawn support for the Saudi war in Yemen. Biden did refrain from imposing sanctions on MBS, since a US return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)/Iran nuclear agreement would be smoother if the Saudis do not create unnecessary impediments. The US President’s decision to not impose sanctions on MBS drew flak from many within his own party, though senior officials have reiterated the point that an excessively aggressive approach vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia will harm US interests in the Middle East.

Progress made during negotiations

In recent weeks some tangible progress has been made during negotiations, held at Vienna, on the Iran nuclear deal. However, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, while commenting on the headway which had been made, said:

We are on the right track and some progress has been made, but this does not mean that the talks in Vienna have reached the final stage.

The Biden Administration has faced criticisms for being status quoist on the Iran issue, but it has been pro-active in trying to move ahead on the issue of the Iran Nuclear Agreement, and has been working closely with E3 countries (UK, France, Germany).

At a time when some progress has been made with regard to the revival of the Iran Nuclear deal, and many are referring to the possibility of an interim deal, MBS’ comments are significant given Riyadh’s stiff opposition to the revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal till only a few months ago.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the recent talks held between Iran and Saudi Arabia and MBS’ tone need to be welcomed. While, unlike Trump, Biden has not allowed Saudi Arabia to direct his Iran policy, he is mindful of the fact that for any meaningful progress vis-à-vis Iran, Riyadh can not be ignored. If Iran and Saudi Arabia work towards improving their relations there could be some major changes in the geopolitical dynamics and economic landscape of the Middle East. An improvement of ties between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia also reiterates the point that complex issues can not be viewed through simplistic binaries.

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