Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been tense and contentious, to say the least. Over these past few decades, varying degrees of hostility, sectarian rivalry, conflicting geopolitical interests, and an utter lack of trust have contributed to tensions between the two regional powers. The friction intensified significantly during the crisis of January 2016 precipitated by the execution of a prominent religious leader of the Saudi Shiite community, Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, and the subsequent violence targeting Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran. As a result, diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh were severed that year. Over the past six years, a host of issues—from Tehran’s backing for various militias and non-state actors in Arab countries to its ballistic missile program, as well as Saudi support for Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign—have contributed to hostile relations.
The world is currently preparing for the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), to replace his father as king. From Iran’s perspective, it is not clear how much Tehran’s relationship with Riyadh is likely to change after the succession is complete. Yet there is a debate among Iranian diplomats and experts as to whether having MbS on the throne would help or hinder efforts to move Iran and Saudi Arabia further along the path of détente.
Progress toward Normalization
According to an Iranian parliamentarian, the Persian Gulf’s two main powers are preparing to restore relations following a nine-month-old bilateral dialogue hosted variously by Iraq, Jordan, and Pakistan. Hopes for a resumption of formal ties have been buoyed by the arrival of three Iranian diplomats to the Kingdom on January 17, 2022. These diplomats, who will represent Iran at the Jeddah-headquartered Organization of Islamic Cooperation, are the first officials from Tehran that Saudi authorities have received since the 2016 crisis.
The Islamic Republic has its own stake in normalization. Severely hurt by U.S. economic sanctions, renewing ties with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states could help Tehran circumvent Washington’s financial warfare and other forms of pressure. Restoring bilateral ties can also help Tehran by “limit[ing] the scope for collision or friction in many places including in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq,” Dr. Hassan Ahmadian, who teaches international relations at the University of Tehran, told the authors. “Diplomatic ties, though low and not that effective in enhancing bilateral relations, can still serve as an advance alarm channel that could stop some sort of indirect spiral into confrontation around the region.” Indeed, reestablishing relations between Tehran and Riyadh may also help reduce confrontational attitudes against each other displayed across their mass media platforms, laying the groundwork for further diplomatic progress.
Despite these promising signs, reestablishing diplomatic ties is unlikely to produce great change in the Middle East’s geopolitical order. What is on the table is a “normalization” of Iranian-Saudi relations—nothing close to a comprehensive rapprochement. “I think even in the case that Iran-Saudi talks are successful and diplomatic ties are restored, the best-case scenario would be for the two sides to replace hostility with rivalry,” according to Dr. Hamidreza Azizi, a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “In other words, no alignment is going to happen between the two at the end of this process, simply because the deep geopolitical, sectarian, and historical roots of the rivalry will not go anywhere,” he told the authors.
The Wild Card of Saudi Succession
Iran is forced to prepare for Crown Prince MbS’s seemingly inevitable ascension to the throne, a prospect that has provoked considerable debate among Iranian experts. On the one hand, MbS is seen as a loose cannon. The controversial Crown Prince’s past policy choices, from waging war in Yemen, to the Saudi blockade of Qatar, his government’s kidnapping of Lebanon’s then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, contribute to an image of dangerous recklessness. In addition, the crown prince’s past depiction of Iran as “evil,” as well as his assertion that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made Adolf Hitler “look good,” have not helped MbS’s reputation in the Islamic Republic. To be sure, like his elders in the Al Saud family, MbS has a very negative view of Iran’s post-1979 political order and Tehran’s role in the greater Middle East. He has attributed Saudi Arabia’s departure from “moderate Islam” to Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise, arguing that the Kingdom’s ultra-rigid doctrines have emerged because successive leaders in Riyadh “didn’t know how to deal with” the Islamic Republic. “Before the [1979 Iranian] revolution, we were living a very normal life like the rest of the Gulf countries,” said MbS in a CBS News interview almost four years ago. “Women were driving cars. There were movie theaters in Saudi Arabia. Women worked everywhere. After 1979, we were victims, especially my generation that suffered from this a great deal.”
A “King Mohammed” may offer an opportunity for a “fresh start,” according to some in Tehran. There is a view that MbS has learned some lessons and spent 2020 and 2021 scaling down his more aggressive policies throughout the region. The lifting of the blockade of Qatar, Riyadh’s efforts to mend ties with Turkey, and most importantly the Saudi-Iranian engagement that began in Baghdad in April 2021 all inform this perspective.
According to some experts, Iran has been engaging the Saudis based on the assumption that MbS, rather than his father, King Salman, has effectively performed the duties of head of state for some time. “I do not expect MbS’s elevation to the king of Saudi Arabia to drastically change the direction of Iran-Saudi relations,” explained Dr. Azizi. “After all, he has been the de facto leader of the country over the past several years, especially on issues related to foreign and defense policy. As such, I do not think even the current signs of improvement in Iran-Saudi relations would have appeared had MbS been against such an initiative. I think this is something the Iranian officials also know, and they have been formulating their regional policy already with the assumption that MBS is the true Saudi leader. Even when it comes to the Yemen war, most people in Iran see it as MbS’s adventurism, and therefore, relate issues such as ending the war or an agreement with Iran or the Houthis are also seen to be in the hands of MbS.”
Of course, officials in Tehran focus on how smoothly an actual transition takes place; they do not discount the possibility of a power struggle between the Crown Prince and elements of the Al Saud family who oppose his accession to the throne. For Iran, Saudi Arabia’s stability is of great importance, particularly given the ease with which turmoil inside the kingdom’s own borders could spread to its neighbors. “Iran’s view of the transition in Riyadh is focused on the outcome as it may destabilize the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which in turn spill-over to the Persian Gulf—a nightmare scenario for Tehran,” Dr. Ahmadian said. “So, for Iran, a smooth transition in Riyadh is ideal.”
Ultimately, what Iran wants is for Saudi Arabia to move beyond supporting Washington’s designs vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic. Regardless of the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, both the Saudis and Iranians want to limit future escalation of tensions and avoid any military conflict with the other. With MbS focused on implementing Vision 2030 and reducing tensions with other countries in the neighborhood, Iran could find ways to benefit from the crown prince’s ascension. Whether this trend toward détente will continue for the long term with MbS in charge remains to be seen.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.