A Saudi minister’s purported invitation to have his Iranian counterpart visit Saudi Arabia could be a sign that Riyadh is acknowledging the need to talk directly with its longtime archrival. While the two countries see each other as their main competitor for influence in the region and are unlikely to come to any sort of accord, there is no shortage of matters on which the Iranians and the Saudis need to deal with one another, in particular regarding Syria and Lebanon. By opening up talks, Tehran and Riyadh could bring tensions down to a more manageable level.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal on May 13 told a news conference in Riyadh that his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, had been invited to visit the kingdom. Prince Saud was quoted as saying “any time that (Zarif) sees fit to come, we are willing to receive him. Iran is a neighbor, we have relations with them and we will negotiate with them, we will talk with them.” The Saudi foreign minister did not elaborate on when the invite was issued or whether the Iranians had formally responded.
This statement represents the first time the Saudis have said anything about Zarif—or any Iranian official—formally visiting the kingdom. For some time, only the Iranians had expressed interest in such a trip. Since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s government came to power and began negotiating with the United States on the nuclear issue, Tehran has shown an interest in reaching out to Riyadh as a way to prevent the Saudis from undermining the diplomatic process.
Aside from tactical-level issues such as the fate of the Lebanese presidency and the rebels evacuating the Syrian city of Homs, which backchannel talks between Riyadh and Tehran facilitated according to Stratfor sources, Saudi Arabia has not had an interest in engaging with Iran on a strategic level. The Saudis, who over the decades had grown accustomed to their main regional rival being a global pariah, are still coming to terms with the fact that the Iranians are on their way toward international rehabilitation. As a result, the Saudis have been trying to assess how they should deal with the Islamic republic. Additionally, from the Saudi point of view, there was no need to meet with anyone representing President Hassan Rouhani’s government, given Riyadh’s view that the real power was in the hands of the hardline clerical-military establishment, which had not changed its foreign policy attitude, especially as it applied to the countries’ mutual struggle for influence in the region.
Equally, there has been movement through another channel close to the government: Iran’s second-most influential cleric, former President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has enjoyed a unique relationship with the Saudis throughout decades of mutual hostility. Recently, the Iranian ambassador to Riyadh met with Rafsanjani, where it was likely agreed upon that direct public engagement at the official diplomatic level would be pursued.
There are a number of reasons the Saudis would be willing to now formally engage with the Iranians. First, it is clear to Riyadh that the nuclear deal is likely to progress (even if slowly) and that Iran’s comeback on the world stage is inevitable, and it is not in Riyadh’s best interests to ignore it. Second, the Saudis believe that the Rouhani government is operating more or less in sync with the clerical establishment led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and resistance from within the security establishment, in particular the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is in check. Third, there has been an unexpected convergence of interests between the two countries when it comes to Syria.
Saudi Arabia recently began a major campaign to counter transnational jihadist forces in Syria, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and Jabhat al-Nusra, and instead cultivate relatively moderate Salafist-jihadist forces. Although the Iranians are still wary of the Syrian Sunni rebels in general, Tehran sees this as a welcome step given the threat posed by transnational jihadist groups to Iranian regional interests. As far as the Saudis are concerned, their efforts toward regime change in Damascus have stalled, not only because of rogue jihadist fighters but also due to disinterest from the United States (and the West in general) for toppling the Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime.
The Saudis have been fighting on too many fronts simultaneously, which was unsustainable from their perspective. Consequently, the emerging regional landscape has pushed Riyadh to set foot on the diplomatic path in regard to Iran. This path however, does not lead to any rapprochement; rather, it will just bring down the tensions to manageable levels for the foreseeable future. For different reasons, neither side has an incentive to engage in any substantive negotiations and will not do so for quite some time.
Republishing by The Manila Times of this analysis is with the express permission of STRATFOR.