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A Saudi-Iranian breakthrough?
Published in Ahram Online on 03 - 08 - 2021

While the Gulf media – Saudi outlets in particular – have focused on Tehran protests calling for the downfall of the regime, the Iranian media is talking about an imminent breakthrough in Saudi-Iranian relations.
An invitation was extended to Saudi Arabia to attend the inauguration of the new, hard-line President Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi on 5 August. If a Saudi representative does show up, that will be seen as a diplomatic gesture highlighting a détente in relations between the two arch foes. Since April this year, reports of low-level talks between the Saudis and the Iranians in the Iraqi capital Baghdad and now the Omani capital Muscat coincided with the resumption of American-Iranian dialogue in Vienna to revive Iran's nuclear deal with world powers.
A Saudi source, who insisted that he was not expressing an official viewpoint, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Iranian hype about a breakthrough might be an exaggerated PR stunt coinciding with a new president taking the reins in Tehran. He did not deny or confirm backchannel talks, whether in Iraq or Oman. However, he did reiterate the Saudi position that restoring relations with Iran is preconditioned by Tehran ending its meddling in its neighbours' internal affairs and its support to proxy militias in the region. "Even if a representative attended the inauguration it will not mean relations are restored and nobody should make much of it. Such cordial gestures are common between even the fiercest rivals. Contacts on a security level might be needed to keep the minimum level of stability in the region. For example, relations between Washington and Moscow are a constant struggle, but minimum security level contact is maintained to guarantee world peace," the Saudi source said.
In his first press conference since he was elected president, Raisi hinted at his upcoming government's readiness for dialogue: "As for Saudi Arabia, I say that there is no obstacle to having a dialogue with Saudi Arabia and relations with all countries. We are ready to reopen embassies". Saudi Arabia severed relations with Iran in 2016 after mobs attacked its Iranian diplomatic mission buildings in Tehran and Mashhad. Though the government of President Hassan Rouhani arrested around 40 culprits and put them on trial, Riyadh was not sufficiently satisfied to resume diplomatic relations.
Saudi defences are intercepting Iranian-made missiles and drones launched by the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen almost daily. Gulf countries are wary of activities by other Iran-backed militias in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Attempts to include Gulf concerns in the Vienna talks with the Americans and Europeans seem to be bearing little fruit. Though the Americans are facing what they describe as "Iranian far-fetched demands to rewrite the JCOPA" (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) with provisions to limit Iran's missile programme and its support for terrorist organisations in the region.
Last week the English-language Iranian newspaper Tehran Times published a report citing "sources" talking about an imminent breakthrough in Saudi-Iranian relations that could include resuming diplomatic relations. In his weekly press conference last week, Iranian government Spokesman Ali Rabiei answered a question about Tehran-Riyadh talks underlining the importance of regional dialogue from Iran's perspective. "Regional negotiations are a perennial imperative and so far, we have underlined regional dialogue and talks between the region's various countries… Iran-Saudi bilateral talks have been ongoing through proper channels. We are committed to moving ahead with the talks to address all disagreements between the two countries and if there is an agreement and a need for elevating the level of talks, we have no limits for that," Rabiei said.
A British ex-diplomat with extensive knowledge of Middle East politics feels that sooner or later the Gulf countries and Iran will have to sort out their differences with the help of outside partners like the US and EU as a catalyst. He seemed optimistic about a possible positive development in Saudi-Iranian relations against all odds. "In the course of the Israeli-Arab struggle it was always the left, the Labour Party talking about peace but at the end of the day it was the right, the Likud Party that made the peace and signed agreements with Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians. Even lately, the right executed the Abraham Accords, normalising Israeli relations with Gulf countries and Morocco. So it might be the so-called hardliners in Iran who will eventually settle relations with Gulf countries," he added, making an interesting analogy. He emphasised the notion that an American return to the nuclear deal and Saudi-Iranian open dialogue would definitely "change the situation in the region".
Yet the backchannel talks between Riyadh and Tehran are mainly focused on Yemen and Iranian support for Houthi militias which makes it difficult for the Saudis to implement a political solution. Although the Omanis are tight-lipped about reported talks in their country, some hint that talks in Muscat might be wider than previous rounds in Baghdad. But Yemen is still the focus.
Optimism about a breakthrough still looks like wishful thinking, all things considered. The new Iranian administration might need time in office before it can offer any compromises. Saudi and the Gulf countries have their baseline demands: a change in the Iranian policy of interference in the internal affairs of neighbouring countries, ending support for terrorist groups, and guarantees of peace and security in the region by refraining from developing ballistic or nuclear weapons. Unless Tehran makes a genuine effort towards meeting those goals, Saudi Arabia will not budge.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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