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Are Iran and Saudi Arabia on the Brink of a Diplomatic Breakthrough? Geopolitical Futures – 04.01.23

Not really, but there are some encouraging signs says Caroline D. Rose.

Diplomats hailing from Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Jordan, Iran and France recently convened in the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Center on Jordan’s Dead Sea coast for a widely anticipated conference. Dubbed the “Baghdad II conference,” the event was held to address Iraq’s mounting security challenges: the resurgence of the Islamic State, infighting among militias, foreign attacks, and the competition over natural resources. The conference bore little fruit; the closing communique only vaguely encouraged continued international cooperation without spelling out any definitive action items.

But officials didn’t walk away completely empty-handed. One unexpected, but notable, takeaway from Baghdad II was the signaling from Iranian diplomats that Tehran could be ready to engage – and perhaps even resume ties – with one of its greatest regional rivals: Saudi Arabia.

Specifically, Iran’s foreign minister said that Iran was ready to resume ties “when Riyadh is willing to,” a departure from more hawkish statements exchanged with Saudi Arabia ever since the countries froze diplomatic relations in January 2016. The hints from Baghdad II follow incremental efforts to forge dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and come amid economic and political challenges that have forced both countries to reconsider their foreign policies. But while Iran and Saudi Arabia may appear to be inching closer to deescalation, conditions are not quite yet ripe for the two rivals to engage in substantive rapprochement. While they wish to avoid major escalation, constraints will continue to prevent any full-fledged resumption of ties.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are under pressure. In an attempt to double down on Vision 2030 projects and capitalize on the momentum from the 2022 World Cup, Saudi Arabia wants to maintain security in the region. For Riyadh, a stable Gulf ensures stable flows of international investment, trade, infrastructure development and engagement that advance its goal to diversify its economy from its oil sector. Any attack from Iran – such as the one on Aramco facilities in 2019 – would derail this strategy.

In Iran, countrywide anti-government protests and the crippling effects of international sanctions – coupled with the fact that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has all but failed – has compelled Tehran to find alternate avenues for economic relief and relative stability. More, the recent waves of rapprochement between former rivals such as the Gulf Cooperation Council states, Turkey and Israel have raised concern in Tehran over a potential regional coalition that could curb its influence from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.

These pressures have created new incentives for Iran and Saudi Arabia to rethink their approaches to regional competition. Since 2021, both countries have entertained limited diplomatic engagements. The primary mechanism has been through the Iraq-convened “Baghdad summit,” where counterparts can identify shared interests and communicate perceived issues. Expectations for what the summit would immediately produce have always been low, given how difficult it can be simply to bring the two to the table. Multiple rounds of the summit have not produced any major breakthroughs, only small confidence-building measures such as Iran’s reopened office to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah in January 2022.

Still, the more encouraging statements from Iranian government officials have been counterbalanced by more hawkish statements from officials from Iranian intelligence and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Immediately after the Baghdad II summit, for example, the head of the IRGC’s Quds Force rejected the conference’s meager attempts at reconciliation, pithily calling Saudi Arabia “scum.” And Iran’s intelligence minister warned Saudi Arabia that its “strategy of patience” was no longer a guarantee.

Iran has also stepped up accusations that Saudi Arabia and Saudi-funded media organizations have stirred anti-government demonstrations inside Iran. And the recent visit of Chinese officials to Riyadh tempered Iran’s enthusiasm for engagement with Saudi Arabia. (Tehran would prefer China to stay in its corner, or at least to continue acting apolitically as it directs investment into Iranian energy and petrochemicals. Thus, the joint Saudi-Chinese condemnations of Tehran’s support for terrorist and sectarian armed groups, as well as calls to peacefully resolve issues such as the nuclear program and island disputes with the UAE, were particularly alarming.)

Saudi Arabia has reservations of its own. While Iranian officials have been vocal about the prospect of normalization, Saudi officials have refrained from signaling any serious prospects of convening officials in the same room. Iran’s inability to pressure and influence the behavior of its proxy force in Yemen to resume a U.N.-brokered truce has especially frustrated Riyadh.

Iranian officials have released a flurry of contradictory statements about relations with Saudi Arabia, making it difficult to get a sense of their true intentions. And there are plenty of factors that will constrain their ability to reconcile, assuming they want to. Though both will work harder to prevent things from escalating further than they already have, don’t expect an Iranian embassy ribbon-cutting ceremony in Riyadh anytime soon. Both states will keep a safe distance from full normalization.

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Are Iran and Saudi Arabia on the Brink of a Diplomatic Breakthrough - By Caroline D
. Rose
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Caroline Rose is a Senior Analyst and Head of the Power Vacuums program in the Human Security Unit at the New Lines Institute, where she focuses on contested territories, displacement, ungoverned spaces, and risks to human security. Prior to joining the New Lines Institute, Caroline served as an analyst at the forecasting firm and publication, Geopolitical Futures, where she worked on political, economic, and defense developments in the Middle East and Europe.

She is also the author of a special policy report on the Captagon drug trade–a culmination of her studies and field work as Research Associate for the LSE International Drug Policy Unit’s Middle East Initiative. Her commentary and work on defense issues, security challenges, and geopolitical developments have been featured in The Washington Post, BBC News, Foreign Policy, Politico, Al Jazeera, Voice of America, The Financial Times, The Independent, and other outlets. Caroline holds a Master’s of Science in International History from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies from the American University’s School of International Service. She tweets at @CarolineRose8.

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