A Riyadh-Tehran rapprochement is unlikely, but not impossible.
Under the former Trump administration, the Saudis and its Gulf allies were strongly backed by Washington to challenge Iran’s assertiveness across the Middle East. The Gulf alliance’s interests fit neatly into the US’ ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against the Shia-majority country.
With the new Biden administration, which has indicated it wants a return to the Iran nuclear deal, there is not much incentive for Riyadh to continue to confront Iranian expansion across the region from Yemen to Iraq and Lebanon.
But will a change in political conditions help both sides develop common ground? On Monday, the GCC leadership was in Iraq. It has been reported that backchannel talks are taking place between Iranians and Saudis there.
Sami Hamdi, an Arab political analyst and head of the International Interest, a political risk analysis group, believes that the Biden administration’s attempt to rejoin the nuclear deal will just make things even more complicated for Riyadh.
“Saudi fears that the nuclear talks are in essence a discussion between Washington and Tehran over a power sharing agreement whereby the two parties will cooperate and acknowledge each other's interests at the expense of Saudi Arabia,” Hamdi tells TRT World.
For the Saudis, Hamdi believes a US green light to Iranian expansion might be disastrous, due to huge discrepancies between the two countries’ military strength and political ambitions.
The Saudis have traditionally been cautious and have outsourced their security, being generally “insular and reactive” while Iran is far more ambitious and self-reliant, according to the analyst.
Tehran's heavy sway in Iraq and its expansion into Yemen, Syria and Lebanon is “cementing its influence over institutions and decision-making processes” in those countries, Hamdi says.
Tehran’s ‘siege’ over Riyadh
The Iranian march across the Middle East will just increase Riyadh’s pain further, according to Hamdi.
“Riyadh believes Iran has surrounded the Kingdom [regionally] via Iraq to the North, Iran mainland to the East, Yemen to the South, and [globally] through political engagement with the Biden administration,” he says.
As a result, the Saudis believe the nuclear negotiations threaten "a complete re-ordering of the power dynamics" in the region through a new US-Iran axis, Hamdi observes.
Despite all these changes, the Kingdom has remained paralysed by its lack of political vision under the inexperienced leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, whose domestic and foreign policies have been severely criticised across the board.
“Their relations could not be normalised because there are no political conditions for that,” says Mehmet Bulovali, an Iraqi-Kurdish political analyst.
He says there is a massive chasm between the political approaches on both sides.
“One [Riyadh] is trying to defend itself while another [Tehran] is acting in a revolutionary mood, which could not be persuaded to live in a low-profile or an isolated way. The [revolutionary] Shia Persian establishment wants to rule over the Islamic world,” the analyst tells TRT World.
Bulovali thinks rapprochement is based on flimsy grounds. “It’s like a sheep and a wolf wanting to negotiate for a mutual agreement to live together. That’s not possible.”
“There are no major political items on which they could really agree on something,” he adds.
The main issue between the two sides is security, but they can not address this because they don’t trust each other, he says.
Hamdi believes a political rapprochement between the two is a possibility if both countries develop a political mechanism of sharing information in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
“Saudi Arabia is not after an expansion of its own influence, but rather a check on Iran's powerful influence. If it feels such a check exists (even if it is outside Riyadh's control), it will be more inclined to respect a rapprochement with Iran,” he says.
“The second scenario is an increased security presence to check Iran's militias. However, this is counter-productive in the long term,” he adds.
Recent exchanges of visits between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Iraqi government have increased hopes that Baghdad could be distanced from Iran’s political influence.
Under the Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi, Iraq has appeared to follow a more independent political path, reestablishing its ties with the Arab world and limiting Iran’s influence, according to Bulovali. “The Trump administration backed Kadhimi on that move. This is a kind of political experiment.”
The GCC Secretary General Nayef al Hajraf was in Baghdad on Monday to hold talks with Kadhimi on various issues including boosting trade and electricity supply from the Gulf to Iraq.
Constant power outages across Iraq was one of the main reasons for large protests across the country, contributing to political change in Baghdad that helped bring Kadhimi to power.
“Al Hajraf’s visit is the continuation of GCC’s policy to develop better relations with Iraq,” says Bulent Aras, a Gulf expert and professor of international relations in the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University.
“If we go back to 2011, when the then-Iraqi government declared that it will support Shia rebellions across the Gulf, their relations hit bottom. But since then, both sides have worked to fix relations,” Aras tells TRT World.
According to Aras, the GCC leadership has three main objectives on the development of its relations with Iraq. First, the GCC wants to convey its political perspective to Iraq and expects Baghdad to align its policies accordingly, he says.
“Its second objective is to contain Iran,” says Aras. This objective was probably the main motive for the recent engagement between the GCC and Iraq, he says. “Under the Biden administration, the regional political balance will change and Iraq will play an important role in that,” Aras views.
The main objective of the GCC is to bring Iraq back into the fold of the Arab world in a way “Iran could not feel itself comfortable there anymore,” Aras says.
Lastly, the GCC wants to develop its trade and cultural connections with Iraq, he adds.
During the recent visit, Kadhimi also demanded the GCC to fulfill its pledge to aid Iraq’s reconstruction, which was promised in a joint conference three years ago, according to Aras. While the GCC promised $88 billion for the reconstruction, only $30 billion was given to Iraq.
“It’s crucial for Iraq’s reconstruction,” he says.
“If those promises were not met, it could also lead to a break-up in ties,” he concludes.