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Iran and Saudi Arabia ‘unlikely’ to pivot back to diplomacy

WT24 Desk

In December 1991, Iran’s then-President Hashemi Rafsanjani and Saudi Arabia’s then-Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud met on the sideline of the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Senegal, Al Jazeera News reports.

In a rare diplomatic gambit, the two agreed to hold talks on restoring ties that crippled for years following the Iran-Iraq War and the deaths of hundreds of Iranians during the 1987 Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca.

Rafsanjani dispatched Iran’s ambassador to Germany, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, to negotiate with the Saudi crown prince, who would later on become king.

After an initial meeting in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, Mousavian travelled to Riyadh for more rounds of talks with Abdullah at his private residence.

Three nights of intense negotiations, covering issues on regional security and bilateral relations, produced a deal that paved the way to a period of detente.

Mousavian said no less than Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Saudi Arabia’s then-King Fahd gave the deal a stamp of approval.

Recalling to Al Jazeera his 1996 meeting with King Fahd, Mousavian said the Saudi monarch was “happy to build bilateral relations” with Iran, but was “very disappointed” that Iraq could not join in the alliance, in the aftermath of the first Gulf War.

“The accords secured amicable ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia for the next decade,” Mousavian said, pointing to increased cooperation in security and trade between the regional rivals.

A year after, Tehran had rolled out the carpet for the visit of Crown Prince Abdullah.

By 1998, Rafsanjani was scooping water from the garden oasis of Fadak, a venerated site for Shia Muslims outside of Medina, becoming the most senior Iranian leader to visit Saudi Arabia since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He was accompanied by his senior national security adviser, Hassan Rouhani, the future president.

The visit paved the way for more rapprochement, including visits of more senior Iranian leaders to Saudi Arabia, and the signing of the breakthrough 2001 security pact on “terrorism” and drug trafficking.

Tehran-based journalist Rohollah Faghihi, who had interviewed Rafsanjani in 2015, told Al Jazeera that the late president spoke fondly of his ties with Saudi leaders, and still expressed hopes for diplomatic revival between the two countries until his death in 2017.

But almost three decades since that fateful meeting in Senegal in 1991, Iran and Saudi Arabia have found themselves on the opposite sides of a geopolitical chasm in the region – from the war in Yemen and the tensions in Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon, to the ongoing conflict in Syria.

Analysts said the recent exchange of harsh rhetoric between Tehran and Riyadh points to more hostilities, with no diplomatic option in sight.

In March, Saudi Arabia’s new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, likened Khamenei to Hitler. Iranian officials frequently refer to bin Salman as “delusional“, “immature” and “weak-minded”.

At the Arab League Summit in Riyadh on Sunday, Saudi Arabia led the condemnation against what it called Iran’s “blatant interference” in the internal affairs of Arab countries.

US factor

The “warm era” between Iran and Saudi Arabia started to turn cold following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, said Mousavian, now a senior scholar at Princeton University in the US.

Saudi Arabia had opposed then-US President George W Bush decision to invade Iraq, wary that deposing Saddam Hussein would empower Iraq’s Shia majority, and alter the regional balance of power in Iran’s favour.

That suspicion became reality, with the US invasion thrusting Baghdad into the Iranian sphere of influence, while leaving its own ally, Saudi Arabia, feeling vulnerable.

Even then, King Abdullah continued to maintain contact with the Iranians, welcoming then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a state visit in 2007. And despite, the Shia-Sunni tensions in Bahrain in 2011, Ahmadinejad made another trip to Riyadh in 2012.

In 2015, Abdullah died and Saudi Arabia saw a transfer of power to King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who ushered a more confrontational relationship with Tehran. In the same year, Iran signed a nuclear deal with world powers.

Mahjoob Zweiri, an Iran scholar and director at the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University, said Saudi Arabia felt “absolutely marginalised”, when US President Barack Obama backed the Iran nuclear deal.

Obama’s departure and the arrival of his predecessor, Donald Trump, in 2017, however, provided Riyadh to regain its footing as the dominant power in the Middle East, Zweiri told Al Jazeera.

As president, Trump made his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia. Trump has also threatened to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, and has appointed Iran hawks in his cabinet.

“They [Saudis] want to see a diplomatic and political defeat of Iran as long as the Republicans are in power,” Zweiri said. “They want to show, that Iran is isolated, marginalised and facing pressure.”

However, Saudi Arabia does not want Iran completely “out of the game”, because its presence gives Riyadh’s new leaders “legitimacy”, he said.

“They want to show that there is a threat, and this can be used for both external and internal purposes”, including a military build-up, Zweiri added.

Writing in The New Arab website in March, Rami G Khouri, a public policy fellow at the American University of Beirut, said part of the problem is that Iran has failed to match its “rosy rhetoric” with its action across the Middle East.

He said that amid Iran’s promise of detente, many Arab countries wonder, “what Iranian troops, funds, weapons, surrogates, technology … are doing in several Arab states”.

‘Dim prospect for dialogue’

Saudi Arabia’s invasion in Yemen in March 2015, the deaths of hundreds of Iranian pilgrims during the Hajj of 2015 and the execution of Shia leader Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in 2016, put more hurdles in its relationship with Iran.

In the aftermath of Nimr’s execution, Iranians attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran, leading to the break in their diplomatic ties.

“Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have reached such a point that prospects for dialogue, much less a diplomatic breakthrough, are extremely dim,” said Sina Toosi, an Iran expert at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.

Toosi said the rhetoric of the Saudi leadership, including from bin Salman and Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir “reflects a zero-sum view of Iran and its regional role”.

Both bin Salman and Jubeir have said Iran is to blame for most of the conflicts in the region, and described Tehran as a “state-sponsor of terrorism”.

“Saudi leaders feel they are the last Arab country standing in the way of total Iranian regional dominance. Thus, they believe any engagement will be tantamount to acquiescence of Iran’s regional status and role,” Toosi told Al Jazeera.

He said efforts by Iran’s President Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, to reach out to Riyadh have been rebuffed.

In 2013, Rouhani made overtures to Saudi Arabia for a dialogue. In October 2017, Zarif outlined a “win-win” solution in a piece in the US magazine, The Atlantic. He also declared in January of this year that Iran is willing to sign a “non-aggression treaty” with its neighbours.

Toosi said the Iranian public also remains “strongly supportive” of diplomacy. He said Rouhani’s re-election in 2017 indicated the public’s support of his pragmatic foreign policy.

But Ali Noorani, a Tokyo-based Iranian journalist for broadcaster NHK, said both sides of the Gulf are to blame for the standoff.

“I think part of the problem is that the two countries don’t want tensions to defuse,” he said.

“They are doing it partly to please their constituents because the enmity inspires very familiar and expected hate in the two countries, while actually, the two neighbours must be collaborating to fight extremism.”

Zweiri, of Qatar University, agreed, saying Rouhani is perceived as hostile by some of his Arab neighbours, while bin Salman is confirming Iranian expectations of him as “politically immature”.

‘Looking for an interlocutor’

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, an expert on Iran business diplomacy and founder of Bourse Bazaar website, said Saudi Arabia has the edge in the current “war of words”.

“I attribute it mostly to the fact that the battlefield of communications is where Saudi Arabia has, by far, the greatest advantage over Iran,” he said.

He said bin Salman’s recent trip to the US “clearly demonstrates the immense access” of the Saudi government to the most influential figures in American business, media, and politics.

Batmanghelidj also said that so long as the Saudi public reward bin Salman for his rhetoric against Iran, then “diplomacy will seem unappealing”.

Saudi Arabia’s hardline stance also complicates any push by Iran towards diplomacy, he said.

“If the Rouhani administration did decide to pursue diplomacy, it would face fierce resistance within Iran for this reason.”

He said the way the rivalry is developing, it is unclear who might be able to mediate effectively.

“Trump is the wrong interlocutor given his antipathy towards Iran, and the government of Oman, which has often played a mediator role in the region, sees limited scope for dialogue.”

Meanwhile, Toosi, of Princeton University, warned that Trump’s threat to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal would further draw a wedge between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

“A US withdrawal will greatly diminish chances for regional dialogue and cooperation and will increase Iranian opposition to US interests in the region,” he said.

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