Is Saudi-Iranian rapprochement possible?
Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.
The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a panel discussion on April 7, 2016, about the possibility of rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The panelists included Jamal Khashoggi, General Manager, Alarab News Channel; Sayed Kazem Sajjadpour, former Deputy Permanent Representative of Iran to the United Nations; Khaled Al Jaber, Director, Al-Sharq Studies and Public Opinion Research Center; and Nasser Hadian, Professor of Political Science, University of Tehran. Ibrahim Fraihat, senior foreign policy fellow and deputy director of the BDC, moderated the event, which was attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, academic, and media community.
Fraihat introduced the event by noting the importance of Iran-Saudi relations, and explained that the discussion would focus on what steps could be taken to improve them. Khashoggi then opened by stating, “We should be able to have rapprochement… It is good for all of us.” He noted that Iran and Saudi Arabia have no direct confrontation or territorial disputes. Explaining the tensions from the Saudi perspective, Khashoggi said, “It’s all about Iranian expansionism. … If the Iranians free themselves from this expansionist policy, I’m sure we will have an excellent relationship.” Khashoggi spoke of their good relationship during the 1990s, but said it fell apart when Iran began getting involved in Iraq, as well as Syria, Lebanon, and now Yemen. He asserted that Saudi Arabia became very popular for countering Iranian expansionism by intervening in Yemen. Khashoggi argued that Iran has sided with a dictator for sectarian reasons in Syria, has hijacked Lebanon, did the Bahraini opposition a disservice in 2011, and hijacked Yemen’s political process. “What they’re doing is not acceptable,” he concluded.
Sajjadpour began by stating his intention to avoid the blame game and argued that Iranian-Saudi relations should be changed through assessment, bridges, and coexistence. Sajjadpour said that the assessment of Arab colleagues that Iran is behind every problem is not helpful, and suggested Saudi Arabia is trying to deflect attention from its domestic problems. Sajjadpour added that Saudi Arabia is acting revolutionary by seeking to change regimes and redraw borders. He said that Iran is still open to bridging the relationship and asserted that coexistence is a necessity, as neither country can relocate.
Al Jaber likened the rivalry to a snowball that is growing bigger every day. He noted that despite numerous conferences and seminars, Arabs and Iranians have been unable to adopt solutions or agreements. Al Jaber said that the GCC and Arab countries’ big problem with Iran is not about Sunnis and Shiites, but the political agenda it has pursued in recent years. Al Jaber asserted that with Iran you do not know who to speak with—the regime, the military establishment, academics—and that progress made with one part of the government is often undermined by statements from another.
Hadian observed that the misunderstandings between Iranian and Saudi elites are very deep. He explained that the Iranian regime perceives the United States and Israel as its principle threats, and that is why Iran is in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq—not to compete with Saudi Arabia. In contrast, he said, the Saudis view Iran as their number one threat, and have oriented their foreign policy accordingly. Hadian rejected sectarianism as an explanation for Iran’s foreign policy behavior, asserting that Iran allies with entities that are revolutionary and friendly, with Venezuela and Hamas being two non-Shiite examples.
When Fraihat asked what Saudi Arabia would tolerate as legitimate Iranian involvement in the region, Khashoggi argued that Iran’s intervention in Syria violates international law. He added that Saudi Arabia feels threatened because if Iran is fighting the Syrian people, they might be willing to fight the Saudis one day and justify it as opposing Israel. Khashoggi asserted that the Middle East needs to work together to fight chaos and extremism, and questioned whether Iran was helping.
Sajjadpour described Iran as being “for its security and the security of the region. … Iran’s agenda is clear, it is not hidden.” He noted that Iran is a pluralistic society where many voices are heard, including in frequent elections, but it has a clearly defined state that is bound by its legal obligations. Regarding Syria, Sajjadpour argued that Saudi Arabia is breaking all international legal frameworks by trying to overthrow a government.
Al Jaber shifted the discussion to how Iran is viewed, referencing several polls. One showed that many of Iran’s Arab and Muslim neighbors view the nation very negatively. In another, people in the region said they fear Iran first, then the Islamic State group, then Israel, all before their own governments, marking a major change from 10 years ago. Al Jaber asserted that this should concern Iran and its leaders, and that it was a result of Iran’s support of terrorism and exporting of the revolution.
Hadian then emphasized the importance of finding a way to cooperate, rather than blaming each other, to contain the flames engulfing “the house we all share.” Responding to Fraihat’s question about the American role, Hadian contended that the United States is in the mood of crisis management and that the Middle East’s significance to it has declined.
After a variety of questions from the audience, Khashoggi remarked that Iran’s version of dialogue is to talk while continuing to act militarily, as in Syria and Yemen. Noting that the discussion had devolved into a blame game, Sajjadpour said, “Let’s be frank. We have to live in this region. We cannot exclude each other.” He added that the idea of Iran being a threat is artificial, and that people are not buying it anymore. Al Jaber called for talking seriously about issues such as Bahrain, contested islands, sectarianism, and the need for development. Hadian argued that Saudi Arabia has invaded Yemen, but the Saudis do not give Iran the same right in Syria. He noted that Iran has managed to develop good relationships with Oman, Qatar, and Dubai.
Regarding what should be done, Khashoggi said Iran should leave the region militarily: “no more militias.” 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 Syrian and Yemeni peoples. Sajjadpour argued that Iran and Saudi Arabia have to understand how each other view Syria and the difficulties in the region. He recommended “de-emotionalizing” the relationship, de-escalating tensions, and deconstructing cognitive systems, and suggested focusing on the common threat of extremism, economic cooperation, and the environment.
Al Jaber noted that the Gulf hoped that Iran might enter into agreements, as it did with the West, but it now fears 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.
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