Iran Pulse

Iran, Saudi Arabia and the 'Trump variable'

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Article Summary
Relations between Saudi and Iranian leaders seem to sway precariously from week to week, propelled by a host of outside influences.

An attack on Saudi Arabia’s  Aramco oil facilities Sept. 14 and the subsequent brief slide in Saudi crude output quickly grabbed world headlines and sent Saudi-Iran tensions soaring once again.

Yemeni Houthi fighters claimed responsibility for the strike, which was perhaps the largest-scale operation by the Shiite group during Yemen's 4½-year-old civil war. During that time, the Houthis have targeted Saudi interests with sophisticated missiles.

In the immediate aftermath of the Aramco strike, both Saudi Arabia and the United States blamed Iran, further straining Riyadh-Tehran ties already stretched by a series of fast-paced hostile developments. Yet calls for de-escalation from Saudi Arabia are now growing here and there.

For its part, Tehran says it has been persistent in pursuing reconciliation. Even before the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, Iran on different occasions had stressed the importance of de-escalation with regional countries in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular.

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Riyadh, however, mainly gave those gestures the cold shoulder. And with Donald Trump entering the Oval Office in 2017, Saudi Arabia thought its long-unfulfilled hopes of containing Iran's regional influence were moving closer to reality. But now, three years into the Trump presidency, Washington's refusal to retaliate for the downing of an American surveillance drone by Tehran, preceded and followed by multiple oil tanker incidents in the Persian Gulf, has seemingly forced Saudi Arabia to accept that Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign is nowhere near what Riyadh had hoped. The Saudi establishment under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seeking a compromise with Tehran with considerable eagerness.

Earlier, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — another regional foe of Iran — started its own de-escalation efforts. More or less, the very elements that triggered the UAE's Iran strategy shift — analyzed in an Aug. 30 story — also could have motivated Saudi Arabia to patch things up with Iran, at least for now. Within the de-escalation drive, Riyadh has resorted to mediation to deliver its message to Tehran. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan  told reporters on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York on Sept. 23 that the crown prince had approached him to help mend Iran-Saudi ties.

Less than a month later, Khan arrived Oct. 13 in Tehran with mediation topping his agenda. In a joint press conference Oct. 13, the Pakistani prime minister said he had traveled to Iran to “prevent a new conflict in the region.” 

After talks in Tehran, Khan immediately headed to Riyadh. He said Oct. 24 that he wants to bring the foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia to Islamabad to talk.  

However, in an interview with CBS that aired Sept. 29, Salman blamed the Aramco attack on Iran and its “stupidity." But he also lamented the potential consequences of a Saudi-Iran military conflict, which he predicted could lead to a "total collapse of the global economy.”

On Sept. 30, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman said the Saudi leadership's messages for reconciliation had been delivered to the Iranian president. But Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir tweeted that the Iranian statement was “not accurate,” even as he didn’t deny the mediation efforts.

Iran's top diplomat, Mohammad Javad Zarif, raised hopes. "If the Saudis look for solutions at the negotiating table and not through killing people, they will definitely enjoy Iran's support,” Zarif said.

A senior Iranian diplomat said Tehran has repeatedly conveyed messages through intermediaries to the Saudi government and has even called for direct dialogue. "But Riyadh insists on keeping the door closed until it gains full dominance over the Arab countries of the region," the diplomat told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

"Everyone acknowledges Iran's influence in some of the regional countries," the diplomat added. "This is the natural fruit of the bonds Iran maintains with those nations, whereas Saudi Arabia was to gain that influence through forceful measures — a policy that met with failure in Syria, Yemen and even in Iraq and Lebanon." 

The Saudi outreach toward Iran is also seen in its internal politics.

Mohammed bin Salman "is preparing the ground for [his] kingship. For that to be achieved, one prerequisite is cooling things off with Tehran," said Kamran Karami, an Iranian analyst focused on Persian Gulf issues. Karami referred to a recently aired PBS documentary in which the Saudi crown prince acknowledged that the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 happened under his watch.

The crown prince "is trying to leave behind all the hurdles that could hinder his accession to the throne," Karami told Al-Monitor. "At the regional level, the conflicts in Yemen and Syria have been the key causes of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But both conflicts appear to be somehow nearing a settlement.”

He added, "The heightened tensions in the Persian Gulf have also fueled concerns among Saudi officials about a possible spillover into their country and threats to the key Saudi energy infrastructure. Therefore, Riyadh needs the Iranian influence over the Houthis for negotiations and tries to avoid Persian Gulf frictions with Iran.”

The analyst highlighted Riyadh's growing "disillusionment" with the disappointing American response to Iran. "Therefore, it’s making sure not to put all its eggs in the Washington basket." 

Nevertheless, Tehran remains cautious and is taking the Saudi outreach with a grain of salt, waiting for concrete practical moves from Riyadh.

“It's undeniable that Saudi-Iran ties have slightly changed for the better recently, and the signals sent by Riyadh don’t bear the harshness that characterized earlier tensions," another senior Iranian diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor.

"Still, in international relations, you can’t formulate your policies on such small impulses. I also believe that Saudi Arabia has yet to undergo a genuine change in its Iran policy, as it still hopes Trump may ultimately do it a favor regarding Iran."  

The Saudi gestures, many argue, are still at very early, fragile stages. "What we have seen so far has a long way to go before turning into comprehensive dialogue, where we could see high-level direct talks based on a framework for resolving differences," Karami told Al-Monitor. "It is pertinent to where the US-Iran tension is headed, because the Trump variable continues to impose structural limits on the Saudi approach toward Iran.”

In spite of all that, Trump's foreign policy style, especially in the Middle East — seen most recently in his abandoning of the Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, as well as the way he handled Iran's downing of the US surveillance drone in June — have strengthened Saudi officials’ fears that if Saudi Arabia really need help, Trump may never show up to come to the rescue.

That sentiment was relayed in a message meant for Saudi Arabia in Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's address to the UN summit Sept. 25 when he said, "America is not our neighbor. … You and we will be left alone [by the US] in the event of an incident.”

 An important point here is that on Oct. 23, a hawkish figure with a background of activities and speeches against Tehran was named foreign minister of Saudi Arabia. Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud's designation may indicate the path of Saudi foreign policy.

There is little doubt that Saudi Arabia has been pinning its hopes on the workability of Trump's "maximum pressure" policy against Iran and will continue to go out of its way to help intensify the campaign. However, with those hopes appearing less bright on the horizon, Riyadh realizes it can’t afford to shut the door to diplomacy and de-escalation with Tehran.

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Saeid Jafari is an Iranian journalist and Middle East analyst. He has worked for such Iranian publications as Aseman, Khordad, Mosalas and Mehrnameh. He is the editor of the international and diplomatic section of the weekly Seda in addition to working for Khabar Online. Jafari has also published English-language articles in Iran Review. On Twitter: @jafariysaeid

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