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Monday Morning Meeting on Saudi-Iran Relations: Between Continuing Friction and Frozen Talks

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  • January 30, 2023
    Monday Morning Meeting

    Dr. P K Pradhan, Research Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), spoke on “Recent Developments in Saudi-Iran Relations: Between Continuing Friction and Frozen Talks” at the Monday Morning Meeting held on 30 January 2023. The session was moderated by Dr. Deepika Saraswat, Associate Fellow, MP-IDSA. Scholars of the Institute were in attendance.

    Executive Summary

    Saudi Arabia and Iran are two important players in the West Asian region. Since the beginning of the Arab unrest, the relationship between both countries has further deteriorated. For Saudi Arabia, the military presence of the US in West Asia is a vital component of the regional security architecture. On the other hand, Iran opposes any external intervention in the region. Iran’s presence in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq has threatened Saudi Arabia. Its major concerns are its national security and the freedom of navigation as Iran has a significant influence over the two choke points namely, the Strait of Hormuz and Bab El Mandeb. Besides, the Iranian nuclear programme and Iran’s intervention in Yemen through Houthi forces are two key issues of rivalry between them. In 2021 and 2022, five rounds of Iraq-mediated talks were held between Iran and Saudi Arabia at the official level in Baghdad. However, the change of government in Iraq has stalled talks and tension has further deepened owing to the recent protests in Iran. Currently, the major challenges for both countries are to convert the talks into a serious and credible political dialogue and to re-establish their diplomatic relations. The reconciliatory approach shown by Iran and Saudi Arabia may de-escalate the tensions in the short and medium term which may help in bringing temporary peace and stability to the region.

    Detailed Report

    In her initial remarks, Dr. Deepika Saraswat stated that in the last two decades, Iran and Saudi Arabia have emerged as two important players in the West Asian region. Since the Arab uprising, both the countries found themselves on opposite sides of each other in proxy wars in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. This rivalry took a disastrous sectarian dimension over a period of time and it reached its peak in 2016. The conflict between the two further intensified with the beginning of war in Yemen. More recently, US President Joe Biden’s withdrawal of support for Saudi Arabia’s war efforts in Yemen and revival of nuclear diplomacy vis-à-vis  Iran, paved a way for both the countries to de-escalate tensions between the two. However, the relations between the two have again become hostile after Iran blamed Saudi Arabia for a “media war”.

    Dr. P K Pradhan started his presentation by giving a historical background of the troubled relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia. He stated that the problems between Iran and the Gulf monarchies started in 1979 when after the Islamic revolution Ayatollah Khomeini became the leader of Iran and declared to export his brand of Shia Islam to neighbouring states.  This posed an immediate security challenge to the Gulf countries. This was an important factor which pushed Saudi Arabia to support Iraq in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. However, during the Iraq-Kuwait War (1990-91), Saudi Arabia supported Kuwait against Iraq. In 2003, during the US invasion of Iraq, Saudi Arabia hosted the US forces which was opposed by Iran. The outbreak of Arab uprising in the region in post 2010 period further widened the Saudi-Iranian divide.

    Dr. Pradhan said that Saudi Arabia was not untouched by the Arab uprising as its Eastern province registered widespread protests. The Saudi regime alleged that Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr was instigating these anti-government protests and executed him in 2016. The execution of Nimr resulted in huge protests in Tehran. In addition, Iran also strongly condemned Saudi Arabia and threatened that the latter would “pay a heavy price” for his execution. This pushed Saudi Arabia along with some other Gulf countries to down grade its diplomatic ties with Iran.

    Thereafter, Dr. Pradhan explained the regional security architecture in West Asia and highlighted the US’s vital role in providing security to Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia. The US also has a military presence in the all the six GCC countries.  On the other hand, Iran says that there should not be any external power involvement in the regional security architecture of West Asia. Iran proposes a regional security architecture in the Gulf with the involvement of the regional powers only.

    Dr. Pradhan mentioned that Saudi Arabia is hugely concerned about Iran’s intentions. It feels that Iran will launch attacks either directly or through proxies if the US forces withdraw from the region.  Saudi Arabia along with the GCC countries has proposed the Middle East Strategic Alliance while Iran proposes Hormuz Peace Endeavour. Indeed, there is a huge difference in perception of the two countries with respect to the regional security architecture of the region. Dr. Pradhan explained the threat perception of Saudi Arabia and Iran through maps and highlighted that US military presence in the region is a threat for Iran and the presence of Iranian proxies in the countries such as Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are threats to Saudi national security.

    According to him, freedom of navigation is a major concern for Saudi Arabia as Iran has significant influence on the two choke points namely, Strait of Hormuz and Bab-el- Mandeb. If Iran disrupts the oil traffic, it would impact oil supply to Saudi Arabia. In the past conflicts, Iran has, multiple times, threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if there is any threat to its national security. In post 2015 period, Houthis have attacked Saudi oil tankers in Bab-el- Mandeb and in the Red Sea forcing Saudi Arabia to temporarily stop oil supply through Bab El Mandeb in 2018.

    Iranian nuclear issue is another key point of friction between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In 2015, Saudi Arabia initially adopted a conciliatory approach towards the deal. Subsequently, Iran started intervention in the region and provided funds to terrorist organisations and other non-state actors which pushed Saudi Arabia to raise this issue with regional and international powers. It welcomed President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and also supported the “maximum pressure” policy of the US. Regarding the Iranian nuclear talks in Vienna, he said that Saudi Arabia was closely watching it. However, Saudi Arabia cannot do much about it.

    Dr. Pradhan highlighted the five rounds of talks which were held between Iran and Saudi Arabia in 2022 in Baghdad. The talks were held between Khalid Al-Homaidan, Chief of General Intelligence, Saudi Arabia, and Saeed Iravani, Deputy Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi played a significant role in facilitating these talks. However, now there is a power shift in Iraq which has stalled the talks between the two.

    According to him, there were various factors that have contributed to facilitating talks between the two countries. Firstly, Iran and Saudi Arabia are under international pressure due to deteriorating internal security and humanitarian situation in Yemen, especially, after Joe Biden became the President of the US. Secondly, Saudi Arabia is under US pressure to end its military offensive in Yemen. Thirdly, after Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran was hopeful of reviving the deal under Biden. Lastly, war in Yemen has proved a burden on the Saudi budget whereas Iran is looking for lifting of sanctions as a result of the Vienna talks. All these factors have contributed in bringing both the countries to the negotiating table. As result of talks, the situation in Yemen has improved slightly and the parties agreed on ceasefire. Though the ceasefire could not extend, the situation has improved slightly in Yemen.

    Iranian Vice-President Seyed Mohammad Hosseini met with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan on 2 January on the side-lines of the swearing-in ceremony of Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. In addition, Foreign Ministers of the two countries met in Jordan on the side-lines of the Baghdad-II Conference on 19 December 2022. During these visits both sides emphasised the need for continuing the talks.

    The recent protests in Iran have also contributed to Iran and Saudi Arabia tensions. Since the protest erupted, Iran has alleged that Saudi Arabia and Israel are behind the protests. Iran alleged that Saudi Arabia has been supporting particular media houses to spread propaganda against Iran. In addition, Saudi Arabia has also shared concerns with the US regarding possibility of a direct or indirect attack from Iran amidst protests.

    While highlighting the challenges ahead, Dr. Pradhan said that converting the talks “to a serious and credible political dialogue” and “to restore diplomatic relations between two countries” continues to be a big challenge. Furthermore, the Iranian nuclear issue and crisis in Yemen also remains a big challenge for the talks. He made three observations. Firstly, the talks at present are at an embryonic stage. Second, considering the adversarial relationship between the two, achieving substantial progress would require long negotiations, mutual trust and willingness to engage in a political dialogue. Finally, the reconciliatory approach exhibited by Iran and Saudi Arabia may de-escalate the tensions in the short and medium term which may help bring temporary peace and stability to the region.

    Dr. Pradhan concluded his presentation by underlining India’s approach toward the Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict. He said that India has huge stakes with both the countries and regional stability in the Gulf is in India’s interest. India has adopted a policy of neutrality and non-interference in the Saudi-Iran conflict and appealed to both the countries to resolve their differences mutually through dialogue and negotiations.

    The presentation was followed by a lively Q&A session.

    The Report was prepared by Dr. Jatin Kumar, Research Analyst, MP-IDSA.