The protest movement in Iran has strained bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia as questions remain over a possible sixth round of talks.
In the 43 years since the Iranian revolution, relations between the two rival nations have seen both ups and downs. They cut diplomatic ties in 2016 after protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in Iran in a dispute over the execution of Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
Since then, the two countries have held five rounds of talks with positive results, but the process stalled after protests in Iran over the death of a young woman who was arrested by morality police in September. Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia are currently at a low point, with some suggesting that talks may have broken down.
In addition to the ongoing protests, Tehran has also engaged in a media war. Saudi Arabia has launched a massive propaganda campaign against Iran through its Persian-language media, angering Iranian authorities who have accused the Saudis of trying to anger Iranian youth. “Those who build glass palaces should not throw stones at other people’s houses,” warned Brigadier General Alireza Tangsiri, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ navy.
These developments have dimmed the prospects for talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia and removed the talks from Tehran’s agenda. But what is Riyadh’s assessment? While Saudi Arabia has indirectly fueled political unrest in Iran through the media, Riyadh and its Persian Gulf neighbors have so far refused to take any official position on the protests, apparently following a “wait and see” policy.
Yemen, US, Israel
Saudi Arabia’s stance on possible détente with Iran, if the latter stabilizes, could be driven by three factors: the war in Yemen, the US government’s role in mediation, and Israel’s ongoing normalization process.
The most pressing problem facing Saudi Arabia is Yemen, where Iran has extensive influence among the Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia and its people are war-weary and looking for a dignified exit, but in this sense, they have no choice but to continue negotiations with Iran – especially after a six-month ceasefire with the Houthis expired in October.
The Houthis have taken military power in Yemen and control the northern part of the country. They have ambassadors in Iran and Syria and diplomatic missions in Iraq, Lebanon and Oman. They have mobilized popular forces to pressure Yemen’s presidential ruling council and attacked a cargo ship in October in an attempt to disrupt the government’s oil exports, a key source of government revenue. Houthi rebels threatened to attack the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia days after the ceasefire expired, potentially creating uncertainty for foreign investors. Riyadh is certainly aware that the bombing of oil facilities could happen again in 2019, making it more likely that Saudi Arabia will risk negotiations with Iran.
The second factor is the willingness of the US government to negotiate with Iran. Although Washington says nuclear talks with Iran have stalled amid ongoing protests, the US has a clear incentive to want a resolution to the nuclear issue and welcomes the prospect of a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. US President Joe Biden, who is gradually abandoning Washington’s focus on the Middle East in favor of China’s containment policy, needs both peace in the region and assurances that regional countries will form stable alliances to ensure their security. Biden called on Iraq to mediate talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As his predecessor Barack Obama said in 2016, the chaos in the Middle East will not end unless Saudi Arabia and Iran find a way to “neighborly relations”.