Iran-Saudi Arabia: it is time to organise the differences

By Elijah J. Magnier:

Iran and Saudi Arabia held their first official meeting on the ninth of April in Baghdad, following mediation organised by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. On the Saudi side, there were six advisors and officers led by the Saudi Intelligence Directorate chief Khalid Bin Ali al-Humaidan. On the Iranian side, there were officers from the National Security (overseen by Admiral Ali Shamkhani), the Intelligence services and the Foreign Ministry. Both sides agreed to meet again this week in Baghdad after they created the basis for subsequent meetings.

According to a decision-maker in Baghdad, the meeting was described in highly favourable terms by both sides. No in-depth details were discussed regarding any country in particular. However, it was agreed that the most crucial step would be to reopen consulates and embassies in both countries. Once the relationship is restored, it will be possible to discuss Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen. The source said that the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement is expected to have positive effects on the entire Middle Eastern region. After five years without diplomatic relations, an Iranian-Saudi agreement is expected to help the region emerge from heavy sectarian clashes on multiple fronts. The source confirmed that this meeting would not have happened without agreement from the Americans who, under President Joe Biden, are less 

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negatively focussed on the Middle East and its complications.

Following  the US failure in constructing a “new Middle East” that sought to occupy Syria, divide Iraq, subjugate Afghanistan, destroy the Lebanese Hezbollah and defeat the Houthis in Yemen, the new US administration seems to be taking a step back. Moreover, the US decision to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan and abide by the Iranian nuclear deal, revoked by Donald Trump in 2018, indicates that US dominance is slowly fading with regard to several Middle Eastern countries. 

The “Islamic Republic” has expanded its soft influence over several countries and effectively contributed to the US failure to change the Middle East. Iran has become a regional power without counting on the Washington army’s support and fighting against the US plans. Iran has benefitted from American mistakes and harsh sanctions to become self-sufficient, producing its own ballistic and precision missiles, and sharing its know-how with allies. 

In Vienna, nuclear talks between France, Germany, the UK, China, Russia and Iran are taking place. Tehran excluded the US from the table, imposing non-negotiable conditions that all economic and energy sanctions be lifted, including the freezing of its assets in several banks around the world. The US President Joe Biden is not listening to the Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who benefitted from a four-year honeymoon with Trump. Israel sees the nuclear deal as a strategic threat to its plans in the Middle East, where Iran, notwithstanding harsh sanctions, has become a regional power. Netanyahu fears the expansion of Iranian influence when Tehran will be able to sell and cash the value of its oil sales and recover its hundreds of billions of frozen assets with interest.

Other countries have been watching how Iran challenged the US by downing a RQ-4 Global Hawk, its most expensive drone, bombed the US’s extensive Ayn al-Assad military base in Iraq, causing critical destruction and over 109 wounded and opposing US plans in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. US Central Command highest commander General Frank McKenzie revealed how the accurate 1,000 pound Iranian missiles would have “destroyed 20 to 30 aircraft and killed 100 to 150 US soldiers had the evacuation not taken place hours before the bombing.”

Other Middle East countries are watching. Saudi leaders remember how they were humiliated by Donald Trump when he said that “Saudi Arabia wouldn’t survive two weeks without US forces”. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said that “Saudi Arabia’s military can’t fight out of a paper bag and would be speaking Farsi in about a week without US military support”. The new US administration pointed the finger at the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamad Bin Salman as responsible for killing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The natural course of action would be for Saudi Arabia to break the impasse and move towards Iran to restore a relationship that was suspended five years ago. Both sides would like to deal with one another and see US influence reduced if mutual trust can be established.

The relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been hectic since the “Islamic Revolution” in 1979 but became worse in 1987 when over 400 Iranian pilgrims lost their life in Mecca. Imam Khomeini announced then that he would “never forgive the Saoud ruling family”. For three years, no Iranian pilgrim was allowed to Hajj. Imam Khomeini called upon the Iranian officials to ask why. He was reminded of his words that became law. His answer was straightforward: “That is my personal opinion, and you are running a state. Go and fix the problem”. 

The Saudi-Iranian relationship has never been at its best, particularly when Iran has become a weapons producer and started its nuclear programme, raising alarms in the neighbouring countries. Saudi King Abdullah encouraged the US to “cut off the head of the snake” and launch military strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear programme. 

The Leader of the revolution, Sayyed Ali Khamenei, served as President of Iran from 1981 to 1989. He is experienced in state affairs and the Wali al-Fakih (Guardian of the Islamic Jurist) at the same time. Sayyed Khamenei is aware that a relationship with Saudi Arabia is a necessary prelude to any departure of US forces from East Asia.

The Saudi-Iranian overture and US acquiescence to a nuclear deal will raise eyebrows in Israel. It will become more difficult for Israel to use the Gulf countries as a platform to attack Iran as Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu had hoped when Donald Trump was in power.

Iran enjoys substantial influence in the Middle East without necessarily competing with Saudi Arabia.

Although Iran benefits from a special relationship with the Lebanese Hezbollah, it does not control Lebanon. The powerful organisation is ideologically linked to Welayat al-Fakih and knows what is beneficial for the “Axis of the Resistance” the group is part of. However, Hezbollah cannot control a country where 19 religions co-exist, and the Sunni represents an equal number to the Shia. The Lebanese Prime Minister is a Sunni, and Hezbollah has promoted as Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Saudi-Lebanese national, even if Riyadh is no longer happy with his performance as reiterated during the last Baghdad meeting.

Iran also enjoys a strategic relationship with Syria it did not enjoy before the 2011 war. Due to its unlimited support for maintaining the sovereignty of Syria, Iran now benefits from facilities in the Levant that it could never have anticipated. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is willing to establish a good relationship with Saudi Arabia, notwithstanding its significant contribution to destabilising Syria and overthrowing the regime. A Syrian-Saudi relationship will not affect the Iranian-Syrian rapport and will effectively contribute to rebuilding Syria when the US lifts the sanctions.

The stability of Iraq is one of Iran’s priorities, along with the departure of the US forces. Because the Takfiri project has failed, Saudi Arabia could regain influence in the country and help to rebuild the infrastructure and the Sunni areas that suffered in the war on the “Islamic State”. Iran has powerful Iraqi militias who ideologically believe in Welayat al-Fakih and will always remain faithful to the Leader of the Revolution in Iran.

In Yemen, notwithstanding the relentless Saudi war that caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the Houthis would like to have an excellent neighbourly relationship with Saudi Arabia. Iranian support to the Houthis in the last six years of war contributed to consolidating an unbreakable robust relationship. Therefore, the end of the war in Yemen would help Saudi Arabia save face, pull out of the Yemen quagmire, and contribute to the reconstruction of what they have destroyed.

Thus, it is to the advantage of Saudi Arabia and Iran to organise their differences until common ground is achieved and trust is established. This is a very long term project that seems to have started well and was put on the right tracks in Baghdad, where both sides’ hopes began. Only an outside force can freeze this long due and beneficial rapprochement that can contribute to a more peaceful Middle East.

Proofread by: C.G.B. and Maurice Brasher

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