Saudi-Iran Ties on the Mend

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It is expected that normalisation of ties between the two biggest Muslim nations may lead to greater regional stability, besides an increase in the influence of the Middle East bloc in global politics.

Asad Mirza

RECENT developments in Saudi Arabia and Iran seem to be on an upswing and could lead to a better understanding amongst the two old foes besides unfolding a new regional and global security paradigm.

Although winter has set in, ice between the two largest Muslim countries has started melting. One claims to be the leader of the Sunni domination while the other is a Shia leader. The ideological differences between the two countries have, in no way, affected their perceptions on various regional and global issues.

However, it is apparent that the current Saudi dispensation, led by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, is ready to bury the historic animosity and forge a new relationship with its avowed foe.

This development also comes in the backdrop of strained relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia on issues of oil pricing and supply and defence cooperation.

Last week, the Iranian side also showed signs of reconciliation when Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian met with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud, in Jordan.

Amir-Abdollahian announced that Tehran was ready to reach an agreement with Western powers on its nuclear file if “red lines are respected.”

In a tweet, Amir-Abdollahian stated that he had a “friendly conversation” with his counterparts in neighbouring countries on the sidelines of the second Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership in Jordan, adding that that he met the foreign ministers of Jordan, Iraq, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia at the event. He added that the Saudi minister asserted his country’s readiness to continue dialogue with Iran.

Saudi-Iran relations

Saudi Arabia cut off relations with Iran in 2016 after Iranian protesters attacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. The demonstrators were upset over Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have long been at odds over numerous regional issues, perhaps most prominently Iran’s nuclear program. The two countries are also on opposite sides of the Yemen civil war, with Saudi Arabia backing the internationally-recognized government and Iran supporting the Houthi rebels.

In 2021, officials from Saudi Arabia and Iran began holding direct talks — facilitated by Baghdad — in an effort to reduce tensions. The bilateral dialogue continued in the current year also.

Previously, Iraq hosted the fifth round of Saudi-Iran talks in April. There have been no rounds since then. In June, then-Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said the talks had made “remarkable progress.” Iran delayed a sixth round of talks with Saudi Arabia in August due to the then political instability in Iraq.

Regional wire service Amwaj Media reported earlier that Saudi Arabia stopped the dialogue with Iran due to concerns over Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, who replaced Kadhimi in October.

Kadhimi had a pro-US outlook, whereas Sudani is an ally of Iran-backed political forces in Iraq. But, Sudani said he hoped to continue hosting the dialogue upon taking office.

In December, The Associated Press had also reported that the dialogue had come to a halt. Citing Iraqi officials, it said that Iran felt that Saudi Arabia was instigating the widespread anti-government protests in Iran.

Amir-Abdollahian’s tweet is, therefore, significant because it seemingly signals that the dialogue could be resumed.

Minister of Security Esmail Khatib said in an interview to the website of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that “our fate and the rest of the regional countries are interconnected”.

The Iranian Foreign Minister was accompanied in Amman by his deputy Ali Bagheri Kani Ali Bagheri. Amir-Abdollahian also held a two-hour meeting with Josep Borrell Fontelles and Enrique Mora, the European Union’s foreign policy officials.

US-Iran tussle

Announcing Iran’s readiness to enter into an agreement with Western powers on its nuclear file, Amir-Abdollahian said: “In the past two to three months, the US made hypocritical statements and took action that did not match its words,” he said about the nuclear talks.

Washington “has repeatedly claimed it was ready to take the final step for all parties returning to the agreement in Vienna, but they behaved hypocritically in the media,” he added.

Amir-Abdollahian stated that the parties to the talks were returning to “realism”, noting that if “red lines are respected, we are ready to take the final steps to reach an agreement.”

Analysts feel that Saudi Arabia was seeking an end to direct and indirect Iranian attacks on its territory, while Tehran wants better diplomatic relations with the Gulf due to Iran’s economic problems and also to create a wedge between Saudi Arabia and the United States.

It is expected that normalisation of ties between the two biggest Muslim nations may lead to greater regional stability, besides an increase in the influence of the Middle East bloc in global politics. This may lead to a further relook of the US policy in the region, because if the two nations bury their hatchet then it may translate into a more demanding and assertive bloc, challenging the American policy and strategy in the region, which seems to have faltered recently.

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Asad Mirza is a Delhi-based senior journalist. He has worked with BBC Urdu and Khaleej Times. The views expressed here are author’s personal.

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