As negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program trudge forward in Vienna, a parallel set of talks between Tehran and a major rival are expected to pick up again this summer.
Media reports in April revealed that Iranian and Saudi officials met in Baghdad that month, their first high-level meeting since Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Tehran in 2016. A second round was held in May, also in Baghdad.
No comprehensive regional breakthrough is expected any time soon, and the two sides have yet to agree on any specific measures.
“These talks should be greeted with only cautious optimism and limited expectations,” according to Albert Wolf, assistant professor of political science at the American University of Central Asia.
But the first two rounds have gone well enough to warrant a third round, likely in the next few weeks. If the talks remain narrowly focused on the conflict in Yemen, they won’t have much effect on Israel’s diplomatic or security situation.
But if they move out of Iraq and expand to cover broader regional issues, it could be an encouraging sign for Jerusalem as it deepens its ties with new Arab partners. One potential venue for such expanded talks, The Times of Israel has learned, is Oman — a perennial would-be regional mediator and potential forthcoming signatory to the Abraham Accords.
The Saudis and the Iranians are natural rivals. Riyadh sees itself as the leader of the Sunni and even Muslim world, while Iran styles itself as the flagbearer of the Shiite camp, supporting movements — many of them armed — across the Middle East. The fact that Saudi Arabia’s own significant Shiite minority lives in the oil-rich Eastern Province only adds to Saudi concern over Iran’s regional proxy networks.
The Saudis are also firmly in the pro-Western, US-backed camp, while Iran is vociferously anti-American, and has been directing attacks against American troops and civilians since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, with the US occasionally using military force against Iranian troops and proxies.
The cold war between the two camps has led to bloodshed across the Middle East, including on Saudi Arabia’s southwestern border in Yemen.
The Saudi-led coalition entered Yemen’s war on March 25, 2015, as the Houthis threatened to take Yemen’s port city of Aden and completely overrun the country’s internationally recognized government. The Saudis promised that the offensive — the brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — would be over in short order.
Six years later, the fighting rages on. The war has killed some 130,000 people, including over 13,000 civilians slain in targeted attacks, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Project.
The war has also widened into a regional conflict, with the Saudis using US-made weaponry in internationally criticized airstrikes killing civilians, and Iran being linked to weapons used by the Houthis to target the kingdom.
The Saudis’ desire to talk with Iran is primarily about finding a way out of the Yemen quagmire, explained Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC.
“This is really Saudi Arabia looking to get Iranian buy-in and support – and maybe pressure on the Houthis – to facilitate a Yemeni agreement that would allow Saudi Arabia to get the hell out of Dodge, so to speak.”
The election of US President Joe Biden — who is far more critical of the Saudis’ human rights record than his predecessor Donald Trump — is a major reason the Saudis are casting about for a way out of Yemen.
“There are a number of drivers that have led the Saudi leadership to recalculate or recalibrate their positions vis-a-vis Iran,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East North Africa Programme at Chatham House in London. “It could be categorized as weakness, but it could be also categorized as an awakening that they’re not receiving as much comfort as they would like from the US.”
But the trend of American disengagement from the Saudis and from the region didn’t start in January. For the past three administrations, the US has been reducing its commitments in the Gulf, which the Saudis are well aware of.
Even under the Trump administration, the trend was clear. Though Trump was quite supportive rhetorically, and visited Saudi Arabia in his first trip abroad, he often declined to use military force to against Iranian-backed attacks. US forces did not respond militarily to the 2019 downing of an American drone over the Strait of Hormuz or to attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf. The same year, Trump also chose to forgo a military response to the drone attacks on the Aramco oil processing facilities in Saudi Arabia that temporarily cut the country’s oil production in half.
The Trump administration limited use of military force against Iran and its proxies to responding to the killing of American troops and contractors.
There are also economic reasons for Riyadh to seek calm on its border. The string of attacks on Saudi Arabia in 2019, combined with escalating tensions between Iran and the US, proved hugely destabilizing for the Saudis, who are trying to diversify their economy as part of their Vision 2030 plan.
The global economic downturn in 2020 as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic further complicated its Vision 2030 program.
“I think part of the motivation to dial back and retrench is to focus on economic issues, and to promote regional stability so that that in turn will promote a more favorable economic climate,” said Vakil. “This is Riyadh being proactive and looking out for its own interest.”
Iran’s economy is in far worse shape, as the “maximum pressure” sanctions regime imposed by Trump has choked Iran’s exports and driven up inflation.
One of the Iranians’ primary goals in the talks with Saudi Arabia is opening up new trade opportunities with Western countries, currently curtailed by US sanctions.
“Iran needs access to the West for simple access to capital,” said Wolf, “and they don’t want to be beholden to China and Russia.”
At the same time, Iran feels somewhat emboldened in spite of the economic woes. It survived a very challenging period under Trump without collapsing economically or politically, and now it is in indirect talks with a US administration determined to return to a nuclear deal.
Iraq’s interest in hosting the talks is regional stability, after it has been turned into a battleground by the US, Iran, Sunni terrorists, and myriad armed militias since 2003.
A good atmosphere
Ties between the two countries were cut in 2016 after Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions following the kingdom’s execution of a revered Shiite cleric, but the recent rounds of talks have brought some reason for measured optimism.
The talks in Baghdad, facilitated by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi, remained secret until the Financial Times reported that a first meeting was held on April 9.
Iran’s foreign ministry said in May that the Islamic Republic was continuing talks with regional rival Saudi Arabia in a “good atmosphere,” in the hope of reaching a “common understanding.”
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh confirmed the talks on May 10, saying their purpose was “both bilateral and regional,” but stressed it was “too soon” to disclose any details.
“De-escalation and [establishing] salaman ties between two great Islamic countries in the Persian Gulf region is to the benefit of both nations,” he said at the time.
Iran in late April welcomed a “change of tone” from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after he called for a “good and special relationship” with Tehran.
Hints at a regional arrangement
If the talks remain limited to narrow, bilateral issues like Yemen, they won’t have a marked effect on Israel’s security.
If the talks remain in Baghdad, they will likely continue to focus on Yemen.
But if they do expand to a regional arrangement, they could have a calming effect across Israel’s border in Syria and Lebanon. In both those countries, Iran could directly and through its proxies create conditions for a focus on reconstruction and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and in Lebanon it could instruct Hezbollah to allow for progress in US-mediated maritime talks with Israel.
Oman is trying to bring the next round to its capital Muscat, The Times of Israel has learned. If they do move there, then a regional arrangement becomes more likely.
“Discussions in Oman would signal, symbolically imply, a broader agenda,” Ibish explained. “If they meet in Iraq to discuss Yemen, it’s really in a contested militia-dominated battleground… to discuss another militia-dominated space which their militias are contesting.”
A broader agenda would likely include maritime security, opening trade with Gulf countries, a regular dialogue framework, and possibly attempts to scale back violence across the Middle East.
Oman hosting the talks could be a promising sign for Israel for another reason. The country lost its longtime leader Qaboos Bin Said in January 2020, and has been in a difficult transition period as new sultan Haitham bin Tariq confronts a dire economic situation.
Talks in Muscat would indicate that Oman is reclaiming its traditional role as a neutral mediator, and is coming out of its shell after Bin Said’s death and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The more secure Oman’s role is, and the more secure Haitham’s rule is,” said Ibish, “the more transition is a thing of the past and Oman has really found its feet and gotten its act together domestically.”
This could even include formalizing its de facto diplomatic relations with Israel by joining the Abraham Accords framework. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Qaboos in Muscat in October 2018, becoming the first Israeli premier to do so in more than two decades.
Financial inducements by the US, UAE, or Israel would make joining the accords even more attractive for Oman.
The Iran-Saudi talks are unlikely to ease the nuclear talks in Vienna. But progress in Vienna could help advance an arrangement between Riyadh and Tehran, as the new Iranian government moves to a focus on economic recovery.
Agencies contributed to this report.