Iran-Saudi talks face hurdles from Houthis, regional threats

Iran and Saudi Arabia reportedly resumed talks in Baghdad recently after cutting ties in 2016.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during the cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, December 11, 2019;Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) 40th Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia December 10, 2019 (photo credit: OFFICIAL PRESIDENT WEBSITE/ BANDAR ALGALOUD/COURTESY OF SAUDI ROYAL COURT/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during the cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, December 11, 2019;Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) 40th Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia December 10, 2019
(photo credit: OFFICIAL PRESIDENT WEBSITE/ BANDAR ALGALOUD/COURTESY OF SAUDI ROYAL COURT/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Iran and Saudi Arabia reportedly resumed talks in Baghdad recently. Reports of the talks have appeared in regional media, but they appear to be mostly based on the Iranian side talking to the press. This indicates Tehran is more interested in the symbolism of the talks than the progress of practical developments.

Al Jazeera, which is in Qatar and should be considered more critical of Riyadh, noted, “Senior representatives of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, Khalid bin Ali Al Humaidan, attended the talks, according to Nour News, affiliated with the SNSC, which did not mention the date of the meeting.” The report further said, “So far, the only actionable outcome of the direct talks appears to have been the reopening of Iran’s representative office at the Jeddah-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).”

Reports note that Saudi Arabia and Iran cut diplomatic ties in 2016. This came during the era when Riyadh was concerned about Iran’s growing role in the region. During the Trump era, Saudi Arabia received support from the US, but Iran also flourished despite being under new sanctions.

A Gulf crisis with Qatar changed paradigms, and Qatar and Turkey grew closer to Iran. Iran grew its role in Yemen with the Houthis and armed them, helping them fire rockets and drones into Saudi Arabia. Iranian-backed militias in Iraq also targeted Saudi Arabia. Now they target the United Arab Emirates as well.

This is all bad news, and Riyadh is concerned that US support is weakening. The Biden administration has been seen as tougher on Riyadh than the Trump administration. This is because US foreign policy is today also linked to domestic policy and there are now many voices in Washington that are more critical of Saudi Arabia than in the past.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi delivers a speech during the ceremony of the National Army Day parade in Tehran, Iran April 18, 2022. (credit: PRESIDENT WEBSITE/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi delivers a speech during the ceremony of the National Army Day parade in Tehran, Iran April 18, 2022. (credit: PRESIDENT WEBSITE/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

This is interesting because back in the 1990s, when Saudi Arabia was accused of being closer to extremists, it had more friends in Washington. As soon as Riyadh pivoted to push for reforms under the new Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, and as it began to critique Qatar’s role and the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in the region; it lost friends in the US because of the intense lobbying efforts of right-wing Islamist groups like the Brotherhood.

In addition, Riyadh began to quietly support peace initiatives with Israel in Bahrain and the UAE. The Abraham Accords occurred, but this didn’t get Riyadh any points because some former US officials opposed peace between Israel and the Gulf, hoping to use that lack of peace to force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank.

Saudi Arabia thus ruffled feathers, not only with its reforms, targeting the Brotherhood, tensions with Qatar and anger over appeasement of Iran; but also because it targeted former dissidents who were close to US publications and think tanks. In short, the old Saudi regime’s friends in the West never forgave the new regime for tossing out its friends and targeting them.

Now Saudi Arabia, feeling more isolated and adrift, must go its own way in policy-making. That means sometimes arguing with the West and working with China, India, the other Gulf states and patching things up with Iran. The talks with Iran are in this context. Riyadh’s concerns about the Iran nuclear deal were ignored in 2015 by the Obama administration, which was intensely anti-Saudi.

Now the problem Riyadh has is that the Houthis in Yemen oppose the talks with Iran. For this reason, Iranian Fars News published Houthi critiques of the new peace talks. The Fars News outlet is close to Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. So this represents the IRGC critique of the talks. Unlike Turkish media, Iranian media is not a monolith, so we can learn how the Iranian regime is divided and thinking on this issue.

THE HOUTHIS are incensed, in part over the cancellation of a flight from Sana’a. Human rights groups agree. This was supposed to be the first commercial flight out of Sana’a airport in six years.

A statement by the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) Yemen Country Director Erin Hutchinson notes, “We hoped that the first commercial flight in six years leaving Sana’a Airport would happen today as promised in the truce agreement. We are deeply disappointed that it didn’t happen. This would have been a first small but important step toward long-lasting stability in Yemen. It is also a life-saver for tens of thousands of medical patients who desperately need urgent treatment abroad.”

The NRC notes also that “we hope both parties stick to their truce commitments, including allowing flights out of Sana’a Airport and opening roads to Taiz and other governorates. The first few weeks of the truce have already allowed us to reach areas that were inaccessible for over three years because of the fighting. We hope to see more of these steps towards stability and a return to normality for the millions of Yemeni civilians.”

The Houthis meanwhile say the flight would have helped end the “siege” of Yemen. Riyadh intervened in Yemen in 2015. It is fighting the Houthis and backing the government of Yemen against them. Iran views the Houthis as the official government of Yemen. The Houthis say the Saudis have broken a recent ceasefire.

“The aggressor coalition countries had refused to allow Yemeni airlines to land the plane scheduled for today,” the Houthis told Iranian media. “The aggressor coalition is deliberately seeking to double the suffering of the Yemeni people, while at the same time seeking to mislead international public opinion about the humanitarian issue.”

This then is the context of the recent reports of talks. Saudi and Gulf media have been quiet so far on the talks. In Kuwait, meanwhile, a speech by the emir sought to present a road map out of the challenges of the past. This matters because Kuwait is often seen as a kind of neutral country in the Gulf, close to the Saudis but not interested in tensions with Qatar or Iran.

Al-Ain media published an article by Tariq Al-Homayed, a Saudi journalist and writer and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. In it, he slammed a recent report in The Wall Street Journal in which Saudi Arabia was said to have had a recent crisis with the Biden administration. According to the WSJ report, the US-Saudi relations are at a “breaking point.”

However, an author at Al-Ain media in the Gulf suggests that this article was part of an “organized disinformation campaign to demonize Saudi Arabia. Someone might say that it is just a story, and it is not worth commenting on.” Yet the article notes that “we must be aware of the danger of what is written because it has a profound impact on legislators, voters, study centers, book authors and economic elites, as well as international influence. We will not discuss the content of the story, but rather the basis of these misleading campaigns to demonize Saudi Arabia.”

The author argues that Riyadh is facing ideological attacks from those with an agenda that dates back to the Obama era. These “activists,” he says, are against the changes taking place in Saudi Arabia.

Overall then, we can see assertions that media reports about Riyadh in the US and in Iranian media have an agenda, and this agenda might spill over into analysis of the talks with Iran.

So far, there is not much news, but the larger regional issues involved are clear. An end to the fighting in Yemen can aid Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and also aid Iran if both sides play it well. Tensions can also increase, as they did last year with a drone attack on a commercial tanker. It remains to be seen what comes next in this regard.