By Team MEB
Caught in what can be referred to as the ‘Middle Eastern Cold war’, the two regional rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia, are set to resume diplomatic talks. The ties between Tehran and Jeddah were severed in 2016 after the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran following protests against the execution of a prominent Shia clerk in Saudi Arabia on charges of inciting violence and leading anti-government protests. After a five-year hiatus, the two countries initiated diplomatic talks in 2021 resulting in the reopening of Iran’s representative office at the Jeddah-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). However, the talks were temporarily suspended by Iran earlier this year while no official reason was given it was linked to Saudi Arabia’s execution of 81 people in a single day many of whom were minority Shia Muslims in the Sunni-majority kingdom. Given their tumultuous political history, the upcoming premise of talks can be seen as a significant step toward addressing the long-existing issues.
Tehran and Jeddah’s relations were mostly shaped during the 1900s with the wider cold war playing a significant role. Seeing Pan-Islamism as a rival ideology to Pan-Arab nationalism- which the US presumed to be socialist in nature and hence likely to be used by the USSR to extend its influence in the Middle East- the US started backing Saudi Arabia as the spearhead of the Pan-Islamist ideology. This alongside its prominent position as the guardians of Holy Kaa’ba led to the kingdom’s rise as the ‘leader of the Muslim world’. At the time, Iran was governed by the Shah of Iran, a US-friendly government, often regarded as ‘US’ policeman in the gulf’. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 which brought religion to the forefront of Iran’s identity marked the end of positive relations with the US.
The Iranian Revolution saw the rise of a Shia majority country and hence posed a threat to Saudi Arabia’s position as ‘leader of the Muslim world’ and was also seen as a strategic concern. This evolved into the basis of the rift between Jeddah and Tehran which was further heightened by Saudi Arabia’s support for Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war. Tensions also simmered after the Hajj riots of 1987 where a part of the planned route for the annual anti-western demonstrations by the Iranian pilgrims was sealed by a cordon of Saudi police and the Saudi Arabian National Guard, prompting clashes where at least 402 pilgrims were killed. In Tehran, mobs attacked the Saudi, Kuwaiti, French and Iraqi embassies. This led to Saudi Arabia cutting ties with Iran a year later, citing the hajj riots and Iran’s attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf. The countries restored diplomatic ties in 1991.
This regional cold war has over the years not only worsened Iran-Saudi relations but also lead to other countries being caught in this tussle for regional dominance stemming from geopolitical insecurities. Given the sheer regional and human impact of this, a move towards diplomatic talks can be seen as a positive way forward but there are also concerns about the talks being stalled or there being a lack of progress as both countries have deep-seated mistrust which has been aggravated by their support of rival factions in different regions.
However, despite all this, Tehran and Jeddah are also moving towards rethinking their policies. After the suspension of the Iran-Nuclear deal and resumption of sanctions by President Trump, Iran’s major concern has been the restoration of the deal. With the Vienna nuclear talks going on, it’s in Iran’s best interest to have Saudi support given the cordial relations that Jeddah shares with Washington. Moreover, given that Iran also wants the US to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from its list of terrorist organizations, positive relations with Saudi Arabia could be useful in doing so. But most importantly the signing of the Abraham Accords has put Iran in a tough position. Whilst Saudi Arabia has been largely silent in discussing the potential of joining the accords, President Biden’s upcoming visit to the UAE in July is likely to put pressure on the Saudis to join the accords. The prospect of the Saudis normalizing relations with Israel would serve to further isolate Iran in the Gulf and strengthen the position of Saudi Arabia. The renewal of talks initiated by Saudi Arabia comes at a strategic time, both for the Saudis and Iran who each have their own agendas as they try to play each other off.