Saudi Arabia and Iran have been talking and it is making some Saudi allies nervous. Aside from alarm over what appears to be a thaw in relations between the region’s two most bitter rivals, pro-Iran militias everywhere are crowing about Iran’s “victory” over the Saudis. The reality is that there is no such victory in sight.
Iraq hosted two sessions of the talks, in April and May, and Oman is likely to be the venue for a third, as yet unscheduled, meeting. The choice of Oman, traditionally the region’s mediator, would appear to bode well for progress, but assigning winners and losers would be premature. Iranian officials have said the talks “have achieved good progress” but warned that some issues “may have complexities that take time to resolve,” without naming what those disputed issues might be.
But there’s no great mystery there. Iran’s regional policy is based on its unwavering ideological antagonism toward the West in general and the US in particular, and has long felt that relations between the Gulf nations and the US are far too cosy. For Tehran, the presence of American forces in the Gulf and the wider Middle East is an abomination that cannot, and must not, be tolerated. The Abraham Accords, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, only inflamed Iranian outrage further.
This indignation is entirely self-serving. Tehran sees the withdrawal of US troops as an opportunity to change the security architecture of the region. As the US pulls out, Islamist Iran steps in to fill the void and bully its Arab neighbors even more. Some American voices concur that the US presence in the Gulf – which dates back to the Carter presidency following the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 – has run its course. Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, senator Chris Murphy all but said it was time for the US to leave the region and hand the keys over to Iran.
Iranian officials have used every opportunity to restate this view. At the seventh biennial conference of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, held in June on Mayotte and Reunion, two French-administered islands near Madagascar, the Iranian naval commander, Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, met with his French counterpart, Pierre Vandier. According to Iranian media, Khanzadi made clear his country’s position: maritime security in any region was a matter for the sovereign states in that region, therefore American and European naval forces should remove themselves from the waters “near Iran’s southern coast.”
As a sovereign state, Iran has every right to assert authority over its own territory, but that extends for only 12 nautical miles off its shoreline. Tehran has no authority to prevent, obstruct or even protest against any other nation’s vessels sailing in international waters or the territorial waters of other Gulf states.
There are two aspects hovering in the background to this putative Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. First there is the possible revival of the JCPOA, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have always opposed it but seem resigned to the fact that the Biden administration will restore it. Negotiations in Vienna were taking place even as the Saudis and Iranians were meeting in Iraq. Iran needs to convince its Gulf neighbors that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.
Then there is the matter of Yemen, which was the focus of the first two rounds of talks. Saudi Arabia has invested many resources in the war in Yemen for six years to no great avail. Put simply, the Saudis need a way out of Yemen. With the mood in the Biden administration less dependable than it was under his predecessor, the Saudis are obliged to try another tack. However, the talks are unlikely to achieve much if Iran continues to ignore the limits of its authority.
The removal of the Shah in 1979 broke the Iran-US alliance. It also cost Iran global recognition as the region’s policeman. As the new regime in Tehran set about sowing discord and destabilizing the region, the world’s major powers strengthened their presence in the Gulf.
As is all too evident from the havoc wreaked by pro-Iran militias in Yemen and Lebanon, Iran still harbors ambitions to regain its former status as the main regional power, but not through cooperation with its Arab neighbors and the West. Instead, the strategy is to achieve those ambitions through blackmail, intimidation, by sponsoring militias, fomenting proxy wars and sending out drones armed with explosives.
The unresolved “complexities” the Iranians referred to following the two earlier talks with the Saudis are, in fact, not complex at all: they want the American military out, and Iran in as the undisputed new sheriff in town.
If Iran could learn to behave like a sovereign state and not a disseminator of revolution, if it could respect the sovereignty of its neighbors and forsake expansionism, a breakthrough might be possible in the next round of talks with Riyadh and thereafter with the rest of the world.
Until then, all the talk is likely to remain just that; yet another round of fruitless politicking that leads nowhere. Don’t put a date in the diary just yet. A genuine solution is still a long way off.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.