Is rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran possible? That was the topic of conversation at a recent Brookings Doha Center (BDC) panel discussion on April 7, featuring Jamal Khashoggi of Alarab News Channel, former Deputy Permanent Representative of Iran to the United Nations Sayed Kazem Sajjadpour, Khaled Al Jaber of Al-Sharq Studies and Public Opinion Research Center, and Nasser Hadian of the University of Tehran. Brookings Senior Fellow Ibrahim Fraihat, who moderated the event, stressed the importance of the Iranian-Saudi relationship in shaping the regional environment and encouraged panelists to offer concrete steps for how to improve the dynamics between the two states.
The coexistence imperative
Khashoggi opened by stating rapprochement “is good for all of us” and that Iran and Saudi Arabia have no direct confrontation or territorial disputes. From the Saudi perspective, he said, the concern is “all about Iranian expansionism.” While the two had a better relationship during the 1990s, Khashoggi said it fell apart when Iran began getting involved in Iraq, as well as Syria, Lebanon, and now Yemen. He asserted that Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen was a response to Iranian expansionism there, concluding: “What they’re doing is not acceptable.”
Sajjadpour also highlighted the need for Saudi-Iran bridges and coexistence, noting that neither country can relocate. He critiqued Arab colleagues’ assessment that Iran is behind every regional challenge, suggesting that Saudi Arabia is trying to deflect attention from its domestic problems. He added that Saudi Arabia is acting in a revolutionary fashion by seeking to change regimes and redraw borders.
Al Jaber likened the rivalry to a snowball that is growing bigger every day, saying that despite numerous gatherings, Arabs and Iranians have been unable to adopt solutions or agreements. The GCC and Arab countries’ main concerns about Iran, in his view, are not sectarian in nature but rather about Iran’s political agenda. Meanwhile, progress made in talks with one part of Iran’s government is often undermined by statements from another.
Observing that the misunderstandings between Iranian and Saudi elites are very deep, Hadian also emphasized the importance of finding a way to cooperate—rather than blame each other—to contain the flames engulfing “the house we all share.” He explained that Iran is involved in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq to counter what the Iranian government perceives as its principle threats—the United States and Israel—not to compete with Saudi Arabia. In contrast, he said, the Saudis view Iran as their top threat, and have oriented their foreign policy accordingly. Hadian rejected sectarianism as the basis for Iran’s foreign policy, asserting that Iran seeks allies that are revolutionary and friendly, with Venezuela and Hamas being two non-Shiite examples.
Around the neighborhood
What would Saudi Arabia define as legitimate Iranian involvement in the region? Not Iran’s Syria intervention, which Khashoggi argued violates international law. Nor is Iran helping to fight chaos and extremism in the region, he added. Al Jaber pointed to Iran’s perception in the region, referencing polls showing that many of Iran’s Arab and Muslim neighbors view the country very negatively and fear it more than they fear the Islamic State group, Israel, or their own governments, marking a major change from 10 years ago. These negative views result from Iran’s support for terrorism, he said.
Sajjadpour countered that Iran’s regional involvement is “for its security and the security of the region,” adding: “Iran’s agenda is clear, it is not hidden.” He pointed to pluralism and regular elections in Iran, as well as respect for the rule of law. Regarding Syria, Sajjadpour argued that it is Saudi Arabia that is breaking international law by trying to overthrow a government.
In response to a variety of questions from the audience, the panelists discussed other elements of each country’s involvement in the region. Khashoggi said Iran’s version of dialogue is to talk while continuing to act militarily, as in Syria and Yemen. Sajjadpour added that the idea of Iran being a threat is artificial and that people don’t accept it any more. Hadian argued that Saudi Arabia has intervened in Yemen, but the Saudis do not give Iran the same right in Syria. He noted that Iran has developed good relationships with Oman, Qatar, and Dubai.
“De-emotionalizing” the relationship
On how to move forward, Khashoggi called on Iran to end its support for militias around the region. He added that there is no such thing as legitimate interests in Syria for Iran, or the Saudis, and that acceding to Iran’s interventionist policy would be unfair to Syrians and Yemenis. Sajjadpour argued that Iran and Saudi Arabia have to understand how the other views Syria and the difficulties in the region, and recommended “de-emotionalizing” the relationship, de-escalating tensions, and deconstructing cognitive systems. He suggested focusing on the common threat of extremism, economic cooperation, and the environment.
Al Jaber called for talking seriously about issues such as Bahrain, contested islands, sectarianism, and the need for development. He noted that the Gulf hoped that Iran might enter into agreements, as it did with the West, but many in the region now fear that Iran’s government is targeting the Gulf in a long game. As for bridges, Al Jaber replied: “We wanted them yesterday, but not according to Iran’s conditions.” Hadian called for more exchanges of scholars, elites, and youth, as well as the constructive exchange of information through media. He stressed the need for elites in both societies to recognize their own problems as a precursor to moving in the right direction.
The objective of this kind of [safe zones] project may be described as fundamentally humanitarian, but the reality is that any number of parties, starting with the Assad regime and the Islamic State, are going to see it as a threat, and that’s going to make it a target instead of a safe place.