Analysts Ponder Significance of Saudi Arabia Seeking a ‘Good and Special Relationship’ With Iran

By Hollie McKay | May 3, 2021 | 6:02pm EDT
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Photo by Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Photo by Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images)

( – In a dramatic twist in diplomacy, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has announced that Riyadh is seeking a “good and special relationship” with the kingdom’s longtime nemesis, Iran. Privately, the two adversaries are reported to be in behind-closed-door talks, a noted departure from the prince’s stance in an interview four years ago, when he asked, “How do you have a dialogue with a regime built on an extremist ideology?”

The Sunni and Shi’a countries have long been at odds, both seeking to leaders in the Islamic world. But after Iranians attacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran in 2016, tensions rose to new heights, with proxy conflicts and tit-for-tat infrastructure attacks putting not just the region but also much of the world on edge.

So why is bin Salman extending the olive branch now?

“Saudi Arabia has tried regional confrontation with Iran and been unsuccessful, especially in Yemen,” said Benjamin H. Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, a libertarian-leaning think tank. “It has learned that it cannot count on U.S. backing in aggressive foreign policy, which makes it more amenable to diplomacy.”

Some analysts have pointed to signals that the United States – which last month affirmed it would withdraw troops from Iraq according to an as-yet undetermined time line – is lessening its commitment to the Middle East, thus giving countries little choice but to negotiate with one other.

“The message of a continued U.S. retrenchment from the region is making regional powers realize that they need to look out for themselves,” noted Dan Arbell, scholar in residence at American University in Washington. “It seems the U.S. is encouraging the Saudis to engage in talks with Iran, as the U.S. indirectly engages with Iran in Vienna.”

The talks in Vienna are aimed at salvaging the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), from which the Trump administration withdrew in 2018. The Biden administration’s desire to rejoin the nuclear deal has placed Saudi Arabia in a bind.

“MBS sought to open quiet diplomatic contacts with Iran in part due to one of the same reasons he opened up quite diplomatic contacts with Israel several years ago,” said Jim Phillips, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, referring to the crown prince.

“He senses that the U.S. is downsizing its military presence in the Middle East and he is hedging his bets on security issues. He sees that the Biden administration, like the Obama administration, seeks a nuclear agreement and reduced tensions with Iran, and he does not want Saudi Arabia to be left isolated.”

While neither bin Salman nor Iranian regime officials have confirmed direct discussions, meetings between Saudi and Iranian officials are reported to have been taking place since January, brokered by Iraq.

According to the Britain-based news site, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt are also playing a role.

The focus of the talks is reportedly centered on the war in Yemen, which has dragged on for more than six years, resulting in what the United Nations describes as the world’s worst humanitarian conflict. Bin Salman oversaw Riyadh’s military intervention in early 2015, a bid to defeat the Iran-back Houthi militia which seized control of the capital, Sana’a.

Analysts say, however, that if the discussions progress, other issues are likely to come to the forefront, including the protracted Syrian conflict, nuclear weapons issues, and questions relating to the stability of Israel, Lebanon and Iraq.

Despite not being directly involved in the talks, Washington is viewed as having played a part in the process by setting the stage for stepping away from its regional leadership, through the planned military withdrawals.

“The U.S. role has been indirect,” said Friedman. “By removing support for the Saudi war in Yemen and declining to come to Saudi Arabia’s aid when its oil facilities came under missile attack in 2019, the U.S. may have cured Saudi Arabia of the idea that it could count on U.S. support in its aggressive regional policies, opening the way for a more sensible Saudi foreign policy.”

The biggest gain for the kingdom lies in ending the Yemen conflict and having some hand in future efforts to keep Iran’s nuclear ambitions in check.

For Iran, burdened by a shattered economy and hefty economic sanctions, and ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, better regional support would be welcome.

Yet Phillips argued that the Saudis conceding to appeals for dialogue also amounts to a victory for Iranian regime propaganda.

“Saudi Arabia just wants to be left alone by Iran,” he said. “Iran seeks to establish hegemony over the Gulf region. If Riyadh decides to appease Iran by seeking a separate peace with it, then that would be bad news for the region.”

Arbell cautioned that, while the dialogue may appears to be a positive development that could help calm regional tensions, a lot more will be required to finally achieve regional stability.

“It’s too early to assess what has been gained,” he said, but added that “the mere fact the two countries are talking is in itself a gain. The focus on Yemen in the talks is also important, and so is U.S. support.”

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