The election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran has generated a boomlet of optimism, not only about the prospects for a deal on the nuclear question but also about the chances for a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia regarding the increasingly intense and increasingly sectarian regional struggle for influence. President Rouhani himself went out of his way to signal his willingness for a new relationship with Riyadh. Even Saudis skeptical about Iranian intentions are encouraged by the new Iranian president.
One source of this boomlet was Rouhani’s involvement in a past, successful effort at improving Saudi-Iranian relations. As a top aide to former President Rafsanjani, Rouhani negotiated directly with the Saudis in the mid-1990’s in an effort to improve relations after the Iran-Iraq War, where Riyadh supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq against Iran. That effort continued under President Khatami, who was elected in 1997, culminating in the signing of an agreement to cooperate on criminal issues like smuggling and drug trafficking during a visit to Tehran by Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayif in April 2001. Note that this was a bilateral agreement on criminal matters, not a security alliance or even a common understanding of regional international politics. It represented an improvement in bilateral relations, but not a meeting of the minds on foreign policy.
While Rouhani’s election is certainly cause for optimism, it is important to note that the regional geopolitical circumstances of the late 1990’s Saudi-Iranian rapprochement are substantially different from those today. Both the Saudis and the Iranians could at least agree then that Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. The fall in oil prices in the late 1990’s brought the two together, with other OPEC and non-OPEC producers, to cut oil production and push prices back up. Riyadh and Tehran had plenty of disagreements, but they also had a few common interests. It is hard to see those common interests today.
The most important geopolitical difference between now and then, though, is the collapse of authority in Syria and Iraq. In the 1990’s Saddam still ruled Arab Iraq, not well or civilly, but he controlled it. Likewise for his fellow Ba’thist Hafez al-Assad in Syria. They suppressed local opponents and kept a tight lid on their domestic politics, making it impossible for foreigners to successfully meddle in their domestic politics. The American invasion of 2003 took the lid off Iraqi politics, allowing Iran (most successfully), Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other regional parties to play into Iraqi politics. They did not have to force themselves onto the scene. Local Iraqi parties, fighting for dominance in the new Iraq, invited foreign support. The same is now happening in Syria. Once players in the regional game, both Iraq and Syria are now playing fields.
The new Middle East cold war is being played out in the domestic politics of these newly weak Arab states, joining historically weak but less strategically central Arab states like Lebanon and Yemen where foreigners have been intervening for decades. Saudi and Iranian involvement in these states is driven not just by ambition, but by the structure of regional international relations. To stay out of these messy civil conflicts risks ceding the field to your rivals and placing yourself at a dangerous disadvantage. No matter how open President Rouhani is to better relations with Saudi Arabia, he is unlikely to cede Iranian gains in Iraq. No matter how much the Saudis want to turn a new page with Rouhani, they will not leave the field in Syria simply as a goodwill gesture.
Since there is little hope in the short to medium term that the Iraqi and Syrian states will become stronger, and thus able to close off their territory to foreign meddling, the chance for a real Saudi-Iranian rapprochement are slim. However, there are important reasons to hope, even in these pessimistic structural circumstances, that Rouhani and the Saudis might be able to ratchet down the intense sectarian nature of their competition.
Sectarianism is a fact of life in the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts, no doubt. But Saudi Arabia and Iran in their own ways are pushing the sectarian line, to rally their followers and discredit their enemies, in ways that are poisoning the politics of the entire region. The sectarianization of the region works against long-term Saudi and Iranian interests both. For the Saudis, it alienates their own Shia minority, pushes Arab Shia toward Iran and encourages Sunni jihadists who will eventually, as they have in the past, turn on Riyadh. For Iran, it emphasizes their minority status in the Muslim world and limits their influence. The United States also loses from an increasingly sectarian Middle East, both because it drives further regional instability and because sectarian conflict provides a breeding ground for al-Qaeda type organizations to thrive. If Rouhani can bring about an improvement in the atmospherics of Saudi-Iranian relations that leads both sides to downplay the sectarian nature of their contest for influence, everyone will benefit in the long run.