Iran, Saudi Arabia Opening New Chapter in Bilateral Ties

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Hassan Ahmadian
Senior Researcher; Expediency Council’s Center for Strategic Research

Almost a year has passed since the election of the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the beginning of a new discourse in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s foreign policy. This new discourse was expected to be welcomed by Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, at least on a large scale and in view of historical relations between Iran and the Arab states. During this period, following the presidential election, Iran has sent many signals to show its willingness to strengthen relations with Saudi Arabia. One of those signals was remarks made by the Iranian president about the importance that Tehran attaches to its relations with Riyadh as well as an article published by the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in the Saudi newspaper, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. On the opposite, Saudi Arabia and some other regional Arab states have not hidden their concern about the interim agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1 group in Geneva last November. These countries’ fears are mostly based on this clichéd picture that the interim agreement will get Iran closer to the West and, by doing so, will certainly put the national interests of these countries at risk. This viewpoint has its roots in the bumpy history of Iran’s bilateral and multilateral relations with the Arab countries in the region.

During recent months, various regional media have published reports on possible mediation of Omani government between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Of course, none of those reports have been ever confirmed by official sources from any country. Even during the recent visit to Tehran by the Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, there were speculations that he was carrying Saudi messages to Iran. In addition to quiet, but dignified, efforts by the Islamic Republic to improve its bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia, and the conservative reactions that have been shown to Iran’s efforts by Riyadh, another point that is worth attention is the preoccupation of other regional countries with this issue and the powerful focus of regional media outlets on it. All this attention is a telltale sign of the high significance of friendly relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia at the regional level. There is no doubt that complicated cases that exist in the region and the prominent roles played by both countries in such cases justify this attention. It is quite clear for regional countries that any kind of essential progress in common cases will need understanding and cooperation between Tehran and Riyadh. From this viewpoint, the quality of relations between Tehran and Riyadh can be defined as an effective variable which influences the course of any macro development at the regional level.

However, despite changes that have been made to Iran’s foreign policy discourse, which have raised hopes about further promotion of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, no major development has taken places in the two countries’ bilateral ties during almost a year that has passed since the election of the new Iranian president. This issue is related to longstanding mental frameworks as well as mutual security perceptions. In addition, there are many cases, which have pitted these two countries against each other during the past years, and none of these countries is ready to easily forget them. Moreover, strategic understanding of each country of the regional developments as well as their rival approaches and goals, have been weighing down on any development that could have affected bilateral ties between them. Nonetheless, it is clear that the general orientation of those relations has already changed. If Iran-Saudi relations were studied according to a spectrum whose two ends are “very good relations” and “absolute tension,” it would become clear that the election of Mr. Rouhani as Iran’s new president has changed the direction of relations from “absolute tension” toward “very good relations.” Since that time, the main hallmark of bilateral relations has been signals sent by either side to indicate their willingness to improve relations and this trend has gradually overcome early doubts that existed on both sides.

The important point here is the approach taken by the Islamic Republic of Iran to Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. Iran makes a differentiation between its relations with the regional countries and the relations it has with the Western states and this has been the cornerstone of Iran’s foreign policy for years. For this reason, save for exceptional instances, tensions in Iran’s relations with the West have never led to increased tension between Iran and its regional allies. This point is of high importance, especially with regard to the concern felt by regional Arab neighbors of Iran, specifically Saudi Arabia, about the possibility of a final agreement between Iran and the P5+1 group. Iran’s approach, which is based on seeking interaction with neighboring countries, further supports this reality. In his article in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, which was entitled “Our Neighbors Are Our Priority,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif wrote that “the fate of one nation is tied to the destinies of its neighbors.” He also emphasized that it would be an illusion for any country to think that it can promote its “interests at the expense of others.” In this way, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s top diplomat was addressing Saudi Arabia, noting that a zero-sum mentality is neither desirable for Iran, nor possible in practice.

The question is why Saudi Arabia is still having doubts about Iran’s new approach despite all these positive signs. One of the issues, which has been brought up by Saudi analysts and observers, is that the foreign policy approach of Iran lacks continuity. For example, they have pointed to the stark difference between Iran’s foreign policy approaches under former presidents Seyed Mohammad Khatami and his successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Then, they reach the conclusion that their country cannot have viable hope in real improvement of relations with Iran in a continuous manner. However, the reality on the ground proves the opposite of the aforesaid argument as Iran has always tried to keep its foreign policy approach to regional Arab countries separate from its approach to the Western world. Even under Ahmadinejad and during frequent meetings attended by him and other Iranian officials, Iran was evidently trying to keep the existing tension in its relations with the West away from the relations it had with Saudi Arabia and other regional Arab states. At the same time, and according to documents leaked by the whistleblower website, Wikileaks, Saudi Arabia was stimulating the West in the latter’s worst scenarios against the Islamic Republic.

As a result, one of the realities that Iran should accept – despite all efforts that it has so far made to change that reality – is that Saudi Arabia has constantly viewed its relations with Iran from the standpoint of the West’s approach to Iran and has been regulating its foreign policy toward Iran on that basis. According to this principle, a change in the way that Iran and the P5+1 group used to interact was expected to lead to improvement in Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia. Now and after many months of confusion over how to resume constructive interactions with Iran, the Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal has invited his Iranian counterpart, Zarif, to attend the forthcoming meeting of foreign ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Although the invitation was made within framework of the OIC’s protocols, it goes without saying that such a visit would have been more extensive than mere participation in the OIC meeting. However, the OIC timing made it impossible for Zarif to take part in, as it clashed with his previously planned schedule for nuclear negotiations between Iran and P5+1 group. Such opportunities are recoupable as long as mutual willingness for improved relations continues. This willingness is obvious in Iran’s decision to take part in OIC’s meeting despite the aforementioned issue. 

At any rate, regional issues are usually of an extended and complicated nature and, as a result, they pose major challenges to interactions between the two countries. The important issue, however, is the ability of both countries to go beyond the wall of mutual distrust and start a new era of constructive interaction. Even successful resolution of a single common case can bring bilateral relations and understanding back on the right track. In light of Zarif’s schedule timing issue, even his deputy’s visit can set the pace for such a major development. This will, however, be conditioned on Riyadh making efforts to modify the confrontational approach that it has been taking to Iran during the past years and replace it with a new approach to Rouhani’s administration. It seems that such a change has been already gotten underway by deposing former head of Saudi Arabia’s secret service Bandar bin Sultan and excluding him from Saudi Arabia’s regional policy. Therefore, in the light of gradual changes that have been made to both sides’ approaches and in view of the two countries’ decision to forsake a confrontational discourse, Zarif deputy’s forthcoming trip to Saudi Arabia can be considered as the beginning of a fundamental change in bilateral ties between Tehran and Riyadh.

It is quite evident that multidimensional complexities that mark Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia cannot be overcome easily as the two countries are still locking horns in a variety of cases at the regional level. In spite of this reality, there is still hope that the existing problems can be solved through a step by step approach. Helping Lebanon in its transition through the existing presidential power void by facilitating election of the country’s new president can be just a beginning and a means of showing mutual goodwill. Making efforts to counteract the growing extremism in the region in view of the security agreement signed in 2001, and making joint attempts in this regard is another good step which can be taken by both countries in the short run. Iran and Saudi Arabia have common interest in undermining extremist currents. This is true because the past experience in Afghanistan has clearly shown that making instrumental use of such groups in one case cannot make the countries that employ these groups immune to their future threat. Another important issue is making efforts to reduce tension between Shias and Sunnis because the two countries’ eminent positions in the region allow them to play axial roles in this regard. Continuation of sectarian tensions will reduce the ability of both countries in managing regional developments and, instead, allows transregional players to play a more salient role in managing sensitive developments in the region. Reduction of sectarian tensions is another case in which there are hopes that cooperation between Tehran and Riyadh would be followed by tangible results in the short term. In any case, new developments have already gotten underway in Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia. Now, we have to keep our fingers crossed that these developments will have imminent impacts on sensitive regional cases.

Key Words: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bilateral Ties, President Hassan Rouhani, Mohammad Javad Zarif, P5+1 Group, Sectarian Tensions, Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Ahmadian

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