What’s going on between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

Prince Saud bin Faisal said his Iranian counterpart could visit Riyadh “anytime he sees fit,” as expectations regarding an imminent visit have increased.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Following a welcoming response from Iran regarding Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud bin Faisal’s May 13 statement that his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, could visit Riyadh “anytime he sees fit,” expectations regarding an imminent visit have increased. This despite indications from Faisal’s brother, Prince Turki bin Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, that the statement wasn’t anything new and had reflected a prior invitation that had remained unanswered.
Although Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad previously traveled to Saudi Arabia, given the events in Syria and increased tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, any upcoming visit carries significantly more weight.
Should such a visit occur, it would reflect an attempt by the two main ideological and geostrategic rivals in the Middle East to bridge their differences in a more public manner and maintain open channels of communication, if only for tactical reasons.
Why now? During his statements, Prince Saud implied that communication with Iran had never ceased, stating that the country “is a neighbor, we have relations with them, and we will negotiate with them.” Similarly, Prince Turki indicated that the February invitation had been extended following an expression of interest from Zarif in visiting the country, likely referring to comments made by the Iranian foreign minister during the Munich Security Conference.
Although it wasn’t the first time that Zarif conveyed a willingness to improve relations – in a December 2013 visit to Oman he suggested that the two countries cooperate “to promote peace and stability in the region” – February may have simply been deemed an appropriate time to respond to such overtures.
In this context, it may be that the attention focused on Prince Saud’s May “invitation” was based on a bit of miscommunication.
But perhaps not. While the timing of the invitation may be unclear, there is certainly something brewing. Following a meeting between the Saudi ambassador to Tehran and former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in April, publicized largely due to controversy regarding reciprocal kisses on the forehead, reports surfaced in May that Rafsanjani was spearheading an effort to improve relations. Such efforts, so say the reports, have been given the nod of approval from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and involve a plan to discuss less complicated issues first.
This means beginning with Bahrain and Lebanon, following by Yemen, and then Syria, deemed the most difficult of the batch given that Riyadh and Tehran lie on opposing sides of the conflict.
Other reports, along with logic, dictate that Iraq is likely to be included in any such discussions as well.
In this context, Saudi Arabia likely sees that failing to improve relations with Iran would be closing a door at a time when it prefers to keep all of them open. While it cannot be ruled out that both sides recognize that the regional situation, particularly in Syria, is becoming untenable, at this point Iran holds the higher position. With ongoing talks regarding a permanent agreement between Tehran and the P5+1 in the background, along with increasing visits by business delegations to the country, Saudi Arabia may see Iran’s re-emergence as a regional and economic power as a likely rather than potential reality.
In such a scenario, the Saudis understand that Iran is a powerful neighbor and it is there to stay. It is therefore prudent for them not to draw Iran’s ire.
Similarly, in Syria, the general perception has shifted toward the side of Syrian President Bashar Assad, supported by Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah. Key battles have increasingly been won by pro-government forces, as opposition parties remain bogged down combating both Assad and each other.
Here, too, the Saudi leadership likely wishes to keep its options on the table, recognizing that the ability to exert influence in a future Syria may require cooperation with Tehran.
Recent shuffles in the Saudi government of individuals involved in providing support to the Syrian opposition also suggest a change in attitude toward the conflict. This includes the departure of former intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, along with the recent replacement of former deputy defense minister Prince Salman bin Sultan.
That said, it remains difficult to see how some of these disagreements, bolstered by regional rivalry and persistent sectarian divisions, could ever be bridged with substantive agreements.
While a meeting between Zarif and Prince Saud would suggest a first step, with Rafsanjani’s reported plan approaching the various issues from as logical a manner as possible, the chances of finding a formula for any major regional issue that would prove satisfactory to both sides is slim. As a result, it may be more likely that any meeting, while accompanied by rhetoric describing “mutual interests,” “regional cooperation” and “Muslim unity,” will see rivalry continuing as usual behind closed doors.
Yoel Guzansky is a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University and former Iran coordinator at Israel’s National Security Council.
Miriam Goldman is a senior intelligence analyst, specializing in Gulf affairs, at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm based in the Middle East.