In the latest diplomatic volley in the increasingly bitter friction between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Tehran’s foreign minister, has declined an invitation from Riyadh to participate in an upcoming ministerial gathering of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
Zarif begged off the Saudi overture on the grounds that he will be otherwise engaged in negotiations with world powers over the nuclear issue. There may well be legitimate scheduling issues, as talks intensify in the run-up to the July 20th expiration of the interim nuclear accord.
Still, Zarif’s public dismissal was a perfectly Persian brush-off: an elegant way of twisting the knife about a diplomatic channel that has provoked Saudi ire and reminding Riyadh that Tehran’s dance card is no longer empty. Instead, Iran is now in regular dialogue with its longtime adversary — and the Kingdom’s foremost ally — on an arms control agreement that will shape the regional security environment for the foreseeable future, one that the Saudis have no direct means of influencing.
Whatever the intention, the Iranian decision to forgo the opportunity — at least for the moment — to extend the regime’s recent charm offensive to Riyadh underscored the alienation and contempt that pervades the relationship between the two regional rivals. Still, Zarif’s busy schedule notwithstanding, it seems quite likely that an official exchange of VIP visits will eventually come to pass. For reasons that I discuss below, there will be no true rapprochement, but Iran and Saudi Arabia will continue to probe the possibilities of a wary detente even as they each continue to fuel the competition, and the bloodshed, particularly in arenas such as Syria.
Iran’s Diplomatic Charm Offensive Began with the Gulf
Zarif’s rebuff came as a surprise to many. After all, Tehran has been soliciting just such a dialogue for at least a year, since the election of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani initiated a marked shift in the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy as part of a broader effort to rehabilitate the isolated regime. The first foreign leader to visit Iran after Rouhani’s inauguration was Sultan of Oman, who has long played the role of interlocutor between Iran and the rest of the neighborhood as well as Washington.
After the interim nuclear accord was inked in November, Zarif made a whistle-stop tour of the smaller Gulf states, imploring the historically insecure sheikhdoms for renewed cooperation. At every stop, his appeals for reducing tensions were aimed, either implicitly or explicitly, at the Saudis. These efforts met with some success, including a preliminary gas agreement with Oman, where Rouhani was warmly welcomed in March; a joint economic commission with the United Arab Emirates; and, just last week, an unprecedented Tehran visit by the Kuwaiti emir.
However, Riyadh has thus far proven more resistant to the Rouhani charm offensive. After a decade in which Tehran extended and consolidated its influence across the heart of an increasingly unstable Arab Levant, Saudi leaders have adopted a more aggressive diplomatic, economic and military campaign aimed both at marginalizing Iran and reasserting its own ambitions for regional dominance. Determined to extract Syria from the Iranian orbit and doubtful of the relevance of Iranian moderates, the Saudis have watched the world’s tentative rehabilitation of Tehran over the past year with suspicion and mounting indignation.
Post-War Pragmatism Motivates Iranian-Saudi Detente
Iranian animosities toward their Saudi neighbors run equally deep. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, harbored special resentment toward Riyadh on a variety of grounds: the monarchical system, close relationship with Washington, deep-pocketed support to Saddam Hussein, and anti-Shia animus. The two countries effectively fought a multi-front proxy war throughout the 1980s, with the Saudis financing the Iraqi war effort and Tehran cultivating Shi’a separatists in the Kingdom’s strategic Eastern Province and sponsoring violence elsewhere in the Gulf. The low point came in 1987, when an altercation at the hajj pilgrimage resulted in 400 deaths, mostly Iranians; in Tehran, mobs stormed the Saudi embassy and Khomeini declared that the Saudi royal family had “forfeited the right…to rule over the holy places.”
And yet two years later, after the cease-fire with Baghdad and Khomeini’s death, Khomeini’s heirs immediately overrode those antipathies in search of a more constructive relationship with Riyadh. For their part, despite deep and often very public anxieties about Iran, the Saudis have historically proven more nimble in dealing with Tehran than the official rhetoric might imply. Even at the lowest points in the bilateral relationship, Riyadh proffered as well as fielded modest overtures toward Iran.
Still, the residual resentments of the 1980s meant that it took nearly a decade, and profound shifts in the regional balance of power, before the resumption of full diplomatic relations. Since then, both sides have sustained the pattern that was established a quarter-century ago, in which guarded bilateral outreach does not preclude continuing conflict and suspicion. Even as the disagreements between the two countries intensified, over the American eviction of Saddam Hussein, the ensuing sectarian violence, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s millenarian provocations, each capital continued to see an interest in containing the prospect of direct conflict.
While this prevented a regression to 1980s-style violence and facilitated cooperation on oil policy during the rapid price escalation of the early 2000s, the contest between the two states played out brutally elsewhere — especially in Syria.
Current Iranian-Saudi Dynamics
Today, reaching a new modus vivdeni with the Kingdom fits with Rouhani’s paramount priority — staunching the economic pressure imposed on the country as a result of sanctions that more than halved its oil revenues. Riyadh will be essential to this process, since Saudi production increases have played a central role in maintaining oil price stability and preserving multilateral support for sanctions. And Iranian realists appreciate that any escalation of the tensions with its neighbors could endanger the nuclear diplomacy upon which any hope of sanctions relief rests.
However, Rouhani is hardly the only game in town, particularly in shaping Iran’s foreign policy. Iran’s activities in Syria are controlled by the hard-line leadership of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, for whom accommodation is anathema. And even for the pragmatists around Rouhani, there is a newfound sense of spite toward the Saudis for what they see as Riyadh’s deliberate efforts to sow chaos and sectarian violence as a means of weakening Tehran. Many Iranians see the Gulf support to Salafist and jihadist groups among the Syrian opposition as aimed directly at destabilizing Tehran.
Iran’s moderates recall that past policies of tacit cooperation on issues such as Afghanistan produced , and they are determined not to sell any cooperation cheaply this time. It goes without saying that such jaundiced views no doubt have their mirror images among the Saudis. Recent photos of the Saudi ambassador to Tehran paying an affectionate greeting to Iranian power broker Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani prompted outrage among Saudis on social media.
Still, the gravitational pull of a quarter-century of conflict management with the Kingdom remains powerful within the Iranian foreign policy establishment, as are the prospective incentives for both sides from a modest de-escalation. Both sides will continue to test the possibilities for ratcheting down tensions, which could have positive implications for arenas such as Bahrain and Yemen where Iran’s investments are relatively low. However, the underlying drivers of the regional rivalry remain unchanged. And both countries see the stakes in Syria as existential. Ideological and balance of power considerations mean that real reconciliation remains out of reach.
The U.S.-Saudi relationship had its finest hour under Bush. It’s no surprise that the Saudis want to remember the good old days. Given the acute crisis in U.S.-Saudi relations, Riyadh urgently needs a capable ambassador in Washington, but not one so tainted with the Khashoggi murder and coverup.