Why Iran-Saudi dialogue is hanging by a thread
The rival states of Iran and Saudi Arabia have had ups and downs in their relations during the 43 years since the Iranian revolution. In 2016, they cut diplomatic ties after protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in Iran, amid a bilateral dispute over the execution of Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
Since then, the two countries have held five rounds of talks, with positive results – but after protests erupted in Iran over the death of a young woman arrested by morality police this September, the process was interrupted. Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia are now at a low point, and some are speculating that negotiations might be dead.
In addition to the ongoing protests, Tehran has become embroiled in a media war. Saudi Arabia has launched a massive propaganda campaign against Iran through its Persian-language media, incensing Iranian authorities, who have accused the Saudis of attempting to provoke Iranian youths. “Someone who built a palace of glass should not throw stones at other people’s houses,” warned Brigadier General Alireza Tangsiri, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps navy.
These developments have darkened the future of Iran-Saudi negotiations and removed talks from Tehran’s agenda. But what is Riyadh’s assessment?
Although Saudi Arabia has been indirectly fuelling the political instability in Iran via the media, Riyadh and its Gulf neighbours have thus far refused to express any official position on the protests, apparently opting for a “wait-and-see” policy.
Saudi Arabia’s position with regards a potential detente with Iran, assuming the stabilisation of the latter, can be considered in relation to three factors: the Yemen war, the US administration’s role in mediation, and the ongoing Israel normalisation drive.
Yemen is the most pressing issue facing Saudi Arabia, and Iran maintains widespread influence among the Houthi rebels there. Saudi Arabia and its people are tired of the war and are looking for a dignified retreat, but they are left with few choices in this regard, beyond continued talks with Iran – especially after the six-month truce with the Houthis expired in October.
The Houthis have the upper hand militarily in Yemen, controlling the country’s north. They have sent ambassadors to Iran and Syria, and have diplomatic representatives in Iraq, Lebanon and Oman. They have put pressure on Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council by mobilising popular forces, and in October, they targeted a cargo ship in an effort to disrupt the government’s oil exports – an important source of revenue.
Days after the truce agreement expired, the Houthis threatened to attack the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which could lead to uncertainty for foreign investors. Riyadh surely realises that the 2019 bombing of oil installations could be repeated, making Saudi Arabia more likely to risk talks with Iran.