Why Saudi Arabia Held Secret Talks With Iran

Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) at a meeting
Credit: Jim Mattis, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A few days ago, the Financial Times claimed in a report that high-ranking officials from Iran and Saudi Arabia had held direct talks in Iraq to resolve their differences. Following the release of this news, a Saudi senior source denies FT report of holding secret talks with Iran. However, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh refuses to say whether it held secret talks with Saudi Arabia but added it is open to the prospect of talks with its regional foe. Finally, the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad, Iraj Masjedi, confirmed Iraqi-mediated talks with Saudi Arabia. But the important point is why Saudi Arabia, after 5 years and despite the mediation of various countries such as China and Pakistan, is now willing to negotiate directly with Iran.

Saudi constraints

Saudi Arabia is currently facing a number of insurmountable challenges in the Middle East which have led it to re-evaluate its policy with regard to Iran. Saudi Arabia severed ties with Iran in January 2016 after Iranian protesters had attacked and set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in protest of the execution of a Shiite cleric named Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. After the severance of ties, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced his desire to re-establish formal relations with the kingdom. A number of countries attempted to mediate between the two, but each time Saudi officials avoided starting talks. However, this time with the mediation of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, Prime Minister of Iraq, Riyadh was forced to negotiate with Tehran due to some underlying challenges the kingdom is facing in the region.

One of the reasons for Saudi Arabia’s willingness to negotiate with Iran is the growing Houthi attack on Saudi oil and gas facilities, as well as the firing of missiles on Saudi ports, airports and military zones, which has put pressure on Saudi officials. Saudi citizens have called for the war to be determined and ended by entering the diplomatic phase and using political means. On Sept. 14, 2019, for example, Iranian-backed Houthis launched drone attacks on Aramco’s oil facilities which caused the kingdom to temporarily halt half of its oil production. In the ensuing attack, the Houthi missile hit Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport, injuring 26 people. Last month, the Houthis launched attacks against King Abdelaziz military base in Dammam and military sites in Najran and Asir. They also targeted Aramco facilities in Ras al-Tanura, Rabigh, Yanbu and Jizan, using 18 drones and eight ballistic missiles. These successive attacks have made Saudi Arabia bored and powerless, and despite international condemnations, it is unable to repel them, so it seeks to resolve the Yemeni issue and sees the key to resolving it in the hands of the Iranian authorities.

The second reason is Saudi Arabia’s relations with the United States. It enjoyed the best relations with the United States under President Trump. Saudi Arabia invaded Yemen militarily and Trump backed it. The assassination of Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi took place during Trump’s time, and despite international condemnation, Washington ignored it. Despite human rights violations and the imprisonment of women freedom fighters such as Loujain al-Hathloul, who was jailed for three years for protesting against the prohibition of women’s right to drive, the United States continued its political and military cooperation with Riyadh.

However, things changed when Biden came into office. President Biden initially removed the Houthis from the terrorist group on Feb. 6, 2021, and on Feb. 26 refused to sell “offensive” weapons to Saudi Arabia. In the latest move, Biden intends to revive the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and has begun nuclear talks with Iran. The revival of Iran nuclear deal will increase Iran’s power in the region and confirm Iran’s right to enrich uranium, as well as it will recognize Tehran as a nuclear power in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia understands the weakening of its relations with Washington and is trying to respond to it by having closer relations with Iran and Qatar.

Another reason for Saudi Arabia is the failure of its policy elsewhere in the Middle East. Syria is a reality that is happening every day against the will of Saudi Arabia. Russia propped up Bashar al-Assad, and the regime was able to retake key areas of the country, such as Aleppo, the Damascus Reef, and the coastal region. Riyadh sought to oust Bashar al-Assad but he is now stronger than ever with the support of Iran and Russia. The kingdom must accept the future of Syria under President Bashar al-Assad and pursue a reconciliatory policy.

The war in Yemen is a disaster for the Saudi-led coalition, and the Houthi movement is seeking a complete victory in the Marib war. President Biden is under pressure to force Saudi Arabia to stop the war in Yemen. The Democrats want Biden to push Riyadh to end the blockade once and for all. Nearly 80 Democrats made that clear in a letter to the president in April.

In Lebanon, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have concluded that the current economic crisis in Lebanon is not in the interest of either country. The economic situation in Lebanon is catastrophic at the moment, and the country has faced several popular uprisings so far. Public sector debt has reached its peak. The banking sector having lent three-quarters of deposits to the government, has become functionally bankrupt and increasingly illiquid. The economy has experienced virtually no growth for an entire decade. The country is in danger of collapsing and both Saudi Arabia and Iran are looking for a solution.

Iran Rewards

Iran and Saudi Arabia are two large and powerful countries in the Middle East, and Iran needs Saudi Arabia to pursue its interests in the region. Tehran officials are well aware that they need Saudi help to improve relations with the Arab world. In addition, with Saudi Arabia’s influence on the five GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries, Iran can improve economic and political relations with them.

Saudi Arabia is the home of two of Islam’s holy sanctuaries — Mecca and Medina. As Muslims, Iranian people are interested in visiting these two sacred places. The beginning of relations with Saudi Arabia will enable the Iranian people to make their annual pilgrimages with complete safety and dignity. The dire social and economic conditions of Iran resulting from Trump’s imposition of economic sanctions and withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the arrival of Iranian pilgrims to Saudi Arabia can to some extent restore the image of the Iranian government in the eyes of the public. That is why Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif has repeatedly sought to improve relations with Saudi Arabia. Mr. Zarif said that he sent multiple messages to Saudi officials to voice Iran’s readiness for bilateral and regional cooperation since he took office in 2013.

The Middle East’s security and well-being mostly depend on both Saudi Arabia and Iran. If Riyadh and Tehran focus on their common interests, neighboring countries will quickly follow suit. This will help extinguish most of the flames in and around the region. Improved relations between Riyadh and Tehran would not only bring benefits to the Middle East but also to North and East Africa, allowing Muslim countries to focus on the reduction of poverty, religious intolerance, and terrorism and promoting democratic reforms.

Mohammad Salami has a Ph.D. in International Relations. He writes as an analyst and columnist in various media outlets. His area of expertise is Middle East issues, especially Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and the GCC countries. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author