Longtime rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran seek to resolve their conflicting issues and reduce tensions through dialogue as a new way of reconcilement.
After regional asymmetric warfare, proxy battles, mutual recrimination since 2016, Saudi Arabia and Iran have transformed their long-term Sunni and Shi’ite power struggle into direct talks as a new process for de-escalation began earlier this year.
On Sunday, Saudi Arabia confirmed holding the first round of direct talks with Iran's new government under Ebrahim Raisi last month.
However, this was the continuation of three rounds of Saudi-Iranian conciliatory talks which were held in Iraq months before Raisi took office as Iran's new president in August.
Recently, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud stated that the recent round has displayed that talks are at an “exploratory stage.''
“The fourth round already took place on September 21 and these talks are still in an exploratory phase,” said Bin Farhan during a joint press conference with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.
“We hope these talks will resolve the issues stuck between the two countries and we are seeking to attain it.”
According to Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, the Saudis realised that their confrontational policy towards Iran simply was not working, especially considering the Covid-19 period.
“The talks between officials from Tehran and Riyadh come at a time in which many actors in the region are recalibrating their foreign policies," Cafiero told TRT World.
"Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, states in the Middle East are approaching the region differently with a greater focus on economic, trade, and investment opportunities and an interest in conducting less costly foreign policies.’’
Beginning of a detente period?
The initial talks began at a time when Washington and Tehran were negotiating on reviving a nuclear agreement that Riyadh and its allies had opposed.
In April, Saudi and Iranian officials gathered for closed-door direct talks in Baghdad. Later on, as the meeting was publicly exposed, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman confirmed the meeting on April 25 during an interview on Saudi state-TV.
“Iran is a neighbouring country, and all we aspire for is a good and special relationship with Iran,” said Crown Prince while indicating the importance of overcoming two countries' differences that have divided the region for so long.
“We do not want Iran’s situation to be difficult. On the contrary, we want Iran to grow and prosper”.
In return, Iran also made some remarks in the same vein in May.
"De-escalation of tensions between the two Muslim countries in the Persian Gulf region is in the interest of both nations and the region," said Saeed Khatibzadeh, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman during a televised weekly news conference.
After these developments, the firm shift in the tone of discourse between the two countries was clear, especially when considering Crown Prince Mohammed's remarks calling Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “the new Hitler,” while excluding any dialogue and cooperation with Iran only three years ago.
But what is the reason behind the easing of relations amid a bitter rivalry?
‘Share the neighbourhood’
The Saudi Crown Prince and King Salman have shifted the country's foreign policy from traditionally prudent to assertive, confronting Iran and its proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen for a long time.
But according to Cafiero, Riyadh came to a realisation that the Iranians will always be a permanent neighbour, and the US will not always be there to back the Kingdom against Iran. For this reason, as Obama said in 2016, they must learn to ‘share the neighbourhood.’’
“It is rational for the Saudis to engage Tehran in a dialogue even though the Kingdom and Iran see the region very differently and are opposing stakeholders in a host of crises from Syria to Yemen and Lebanon,’’ said Cafiero.
In March 2021, Saudi Arabia proposed a cease-fire in Yemen amid ongoing military conflict with the Iran-backed Houthis, since daily missile and drone strikes turned out to be an immense security threat for Saudi Arabia as they hit airports, military bases and oil installations in the kingdom.
Moreover, the strikes were endangering Saudi Arabia’s 2030 vision on reducing the kingdom's dependency on oil, increasing its economy and strengthening public service sectors which is a high priority for Riyadh.
“It seems that the Saudis want to find out if dialogue with Iran can result in Iran using its influence over the Houthi rebels to convince them to lay down their arms and negotiate peace with the Saudi kingdom,’’ said Cafiero.
He also indicated a possible agreement whereby the Iranians use their leverage to help Saudi Arabia exit from the Yemeni conflict in an exchange for Riyadh renormalising relations with the Syrian government.
In addition, Iran-based drone strikes on Saudi Arabia's two Aramco oil facilities in 2019 may have an impact on the decision of reconciliation, as the strikes resulted in a cut of 50 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil production and shook the Saudi leadership to its core.
Also, the Biden administration's outreach to Iran may also be seen as a driving factor for Saudis to choose this path in terms of maintaining good relations with the US.
Iran, on the other hand, has its own grounds to ease friction with all its neighbours in the Gulf region including the new government's strategies to decrease Iran’s regional isolation and economic difficulties due to US sanctions.
“With Iran’s new president focused on building up his country’s economic relations with regional countries, and much less determined to reconcile with western powers, it was no shock that Ebrahim Raisi took advantage of the opportunity to make an overture to Riyadh in his first address as Iran’s new president earlier this year,” said Cafiero.
According to Cafiero, Tehran believes that diplomatic rapprochement with Riyadh can pave the way for improving Iran’s image in the Middle East and around the world.
''This could possibly result in the Biden administration being more willing to lift or ease US sanctions on the country regardless of the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.''
Then, what should we expect from the current Iranian-Saudi rapprochement? Does this signal much close cooperation between the two countries in future?
For Cafiero, this is unlikely due to the countries’ fundamental differences, but he believes that such talks are essential for the de-escalation process in the region, since not talking has failed to provide expected security for five years.
''These two regimes have much disdain for the other and major ideological differences between them are not about to vanish or become irrelevant to the bilateral relationship.''
''Nonetheless, even if the process of lowering friction in Iranian-Saudi relations takes a long time, it is healthy for the Middle East to have officials from Tehran and Riyadh meeting in Iraq and elsewhere for talks.''