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Challenging Prospects for Saudi-Iranian Talks

A fifth round of talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, held in late April 2022, raised hopes that the two countries’ foreign ministers might meet to reopen their respective embassies in Riyadh and Tehran after diplomatic ties between the two capitals broke down in 2016. Despite this promising sign, however, there has still been no guarantee that Saudi Arabia and Iran can work together unless the United States commits to restoring the balance of power between them, irrespective of the recurring shifts in U.S. foreign policy from changes in administration. Recent attempts by President Joe Biden’s administration to encourage improved ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been perceived as falling short of ensuring an enduring peace between the two countries, even if a thaw in relations is achieved.

Overview of Saudi-Iranian Talks

Riyadh and Tehran embarked on their first round of talks in April 2021. More talks followed through February 2022. Early on in the process, Riyadh described its talks as cordial and exploratory and said that it was keen to build results with Iran. The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud even confirmed that his country sought good relations with Tehran, despite his past hesitation to work with Iran.

The Saudi-Iranian talks arrived on the heels of efforts by the Biden administration to revive a nuclear deal with Tehran. The initial nuclear deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), first concluded during the Obama administration between Iran and the world powers in 2015, broke down after the Trump administration withdrew the participation of the United States. Trump then re-imposed harsh sanctions on Iran in May 2018.

When the revived talks to salvage the nuclear deal failed to yield results by the end of 2021 in spite of months of tense negotiations between the world powers (Russia, China, France, Germany and the United Kingdom) and Iran, as well as indirect talks between Washington and Tehran in Vienna, the Saudi-Iranian talks also suffered a temporary setback. In response to the failed nuclear talks, Iran raised the stakes; it linked the prospects of peace in Yemen between the Iranian-backed Houthis and a Saudi-backed Yemeni government to a successful outcome of the nuclear talks, which would also lead to the removal of anti-Iranian sanctions.

Then in January 2022, Iran held Friday Prayer rallies across the country to condemn the Saudi-led military coalition’s war in Yemen. By February, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud suggested that the revival of a nuclear pact could be a starting point to addressing Saudi Arabia’s other issues with Iran, including its missile program and interference in the domestic affairs of neighboring Arab countries. Iran, in turn, rejected a new nuclear deal that went beyond the terms of the JCPOA. The talks have now stalled over a disagreement with the United States’ hesitation to remove the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps from its list of foreign terrorist organizations.

At the same time, the Houthis in Yemen escalated their missile and drone attacks against Saudi energy and refining facilities in March 2022. Officials in Washington claimed that Tehran enabled the attack; Tehran responded by unilaterally suspending the next round of its talks with Riyadh. The Saudi-Iranian talks resumed for their fifth round in April, but started on an acrimonious note after Tehran publicly denounced Saudi Arabia’s execution of 81 individuals—including a reported 41 Shias convicted of carrying out acts of terrorism. The executions took place as the Houthis stepped up their attacks against Saudi targets.

However, Washington may have encouraged Riyadh to stick to the talks with Tehran, as signs also emerged that pointed to possible progress in the nuclear talks. For example, Iran reported that $7 billion of its frozen assets in overseas banks could be released to help the country cope with sanctions. In addition, a two-month truce, scheduled to last from April 2 until June 2, went into effect in Yemen, promising humanitarian assistance and air routes between the Houthi-controlled capital city of Sana’a and Saudi Arabia’s allies, including Jordan and Egypt. Saudi Arabia also secured the resignation of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, president of the internationally-recognized government of Yemen, in favor of a new Presidential Leadership Council.

Finally, closer to home, Iran persuaded Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to accept a resource sharing mechanism to develop the shared Al-Dorra/Arash gas field in the Partitioned Neutral Zone, despite a longstanding Iranian failure to demarcate the eastern Gulf maritime boundaries where the field is located with its two Arab neighbors.

Will a Saudi-Iranian Partnership Last?

For now, all signs seem to suggest that Iran will continue talks with Saudi Arabia for as long as necessary to achieve some results. This also satisfies Iran, which needs Saudi Arabia to buffer the frequent tensions between Washington and Tehran over the Iranian nuclear program.

However, Saudi Arabia seems to resent playing this buffer role—particularly if Washington does not commit to upholding Saudi interests, including its desire to contain Iran’s influence in Yemen. According to former Saudi chief of intelligence Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudis felt let down by the withdrawal of U.S. support for their country in the face of looming threats, including Iran’s use of the Houthis to “destabilize Saudi Arabia,” and Washington’s refusal or inability to respond to the Houthi attacks on Saudi oil installations.

My talks with a senior Saudi royal family member also revealed concerns in Saudi Arabia that Tehran might seek to exploit. It is speculated that the war in Yemen will hasten the return of the Mahdi, a Shi’a imam believed to have gone into occultation around 941CE to return to earth to restore justice in an unknown time in the future. This talk sounds imaginary. Yet even in the Sunni countries of the Gulf region some believe in the Mahdi in the form of a savior. However, they may not so readily subscribe to the Iranian apocalyptic version of needing to expedite his return, unless provoked by Tehran.

Iranian clerics see Iran’s growing regional influence in places like Yemen as signs of this apocalyptic goal, and believe that they must recruit allies as well as sympathetic Sunnis to reach this goal. Unsurprisingly, in my conversations with Saudi policy experts, they said that they viewed previous Houthi missiles targeting Mecca in 2019 as Iranian attempts to someday control the holy city, where Muslims from around the world congregate, from where they could then advance toward the several locations where the Mahdi is expected to return, i.e., on the borders between Syria and Israel or near the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Given these deep Saudi concerns about Iranian intentions, if the United States were to withdraw from the Gulf but offer little by way of security guarantees to Saudi Arabia, the resulting tensions in the region would likely not sustain a strong partnership between Riyadh and Tehran. For now, however, since Iran needs sanctions relief, the country also welcomes outreach to Saudi Arabia.

As a sign of further compromise, Iran has also displayed a willingness to accommodate Saudi Arabia in other arenas. For example, Iran supported the recent talks between Riyadh and Baghdad to link their power grids in the same industry and markets where Iran also competes. Tehran also welcomed outreach efforts between Saudi Arabia and Syria, which occurred despite years of tensions between them, during which Iran backed the Syrian government against rebel forces backed by its Arab neighbor.

Given these complex realities, any peace to be had between Riyadh and Tehran would remain fragile unless the United States encourages a steady partnership between the two regional capitals. This support would need to continue irrespective of whether Republicans or Democrats control the White House or Congress. This condition, however, may never fully materialize. Consequently, even in the best-case scenario, it is fair to expect that Riyadh and Tehran will build only fragmented multilateral regional institutions that may not sufficiently uphold their mutual security interests. They may also fail to keep each other’s potential hegemonic ambitions in check, and would be left with limited options to engage through niche diplomacy to address some of the most pressing challenges in their ties.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Dr. Banafsheh Keynoush is a scholar of international affairs, an international geopolitical consultant, and the President of MidEast Analysts. She is a fellow at the International Institute for Iranian Studies, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, and a team member at the Carnegie-funded Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation Project. She also served as the Vice-Chair of the Middle East Forum at the Commonwealth Club of California. Her other professional experiences include advisory, public affairs, and analytical work for government agencies, international organizations, policy centers, and private companies across a multitude of sectors. An academic for over thirteen years, she has conducted fieldwork in the Middle East for two decades, including in Saudi Arabia and Iran, was a visiting scholar at Princeton University, and a visiting fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. She received her Ph.D. from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and completed her coursework at The John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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