Iraq’s new Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ Al Sudani visited Tehran last month and proposed arranging a further round of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but Iranian officials denied the request, claiming that Riyadh supported the growing wave of protests in Iran against the regime, the Associated Press reported.
The talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which had been showing gradual progress, remain stalled. Tehran and Riyadh concluded five rounds of talks mediated by Baghdad last April and Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh described them as positive. However, the sixth round is yet to be scheduled.
Ahmed Alqarout, a London-based MENA political economy analyst, told The Media Line that Iran’s claim of Saudi support for the anti-government protests is based on actions like Riyadh’s backing of London-based media outlet Iran International, which has been reporting sympathetically on the protests. The channel is owned by Volant Media UK, whose principal shareholder is Saudi national Adel Alabdulkarim, and which has ties to the Saudi royal family.
“MbS [Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and prime minister of Saudi Arabia] has previously threatened to instigate instability in Iran if it continues to destabilize the neighborhood and other Arab nations,” Alqarout adds.
“Iran sees Saudi Arabia supporting a Kurdish rebellion against its regime, in collaboration with Israel and the US, which is emboldening militant elements in Iraqi Kurdistan, something Iran deems of serious impact on its relationship with Iraq and its own stability,” says Alqarout.
Zeidon Alkinani, Middle East political analyst and nonresident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, DC, notes that the Saudi-Iranian rivalry has existed for decades, changing throughout different periods and types of interactions.
Therefore, he tells The Media Line, improving bilateral relations will require years of effort, and obstacles are expected. Nevertheless, both sides would greatly benefit from even slightly improved relations following decades of hardening stalemate.
Alqarout says that for Iran, talks with Saudi Arabia could have helped both to reach an understanding about regional stability moving forward. Similarly, he adds, renewed talks would enable the Saudis to control further Iranian incursion in its sphere of influence.
He adds that improved relations between the two Middle Eastern rival powers would not only benefit them but also many other countries in the region.
He notes the case of Lebanon, “where regional rivalry played a vital role in establishing a political deadlock that paved the way for the economic crisis following the protests and the COVID-19 pandemic.” Thus, he concludes, a sixth round of Saudi-Iranian talks is not expected to be scheduled soon.
A lack of interest
Both countries have shown an apparent lack of interest in the process since the unrest in Iran began in September, sparked by the torture and death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police. Iran claims the protests are the result of “foreign incitement.”
Instead, Alqarout continues, “Saudi Arabia leaked to the international media the Iranian intentions to attack the kingdom in early November, to retaliate against the Saudi alleged involvement in the protests.” He notes that Iran never carried out the expected attack.
“Saudi Arabia leaked to the international media the Iranian intentions to attack the kingdom in early November, to retaliate against the Saudi alleged involvement in the protests.”Zeidon Alkinani
On the other hand, he points out that the Iranian leaders continued to promise to avenge their people from those responsible for the unrest, while the Saudis did not comment on the Iranian allegations.
Alqarout says Iran’s status, in both the domestic and international spheres, is shaky and argues that the Iranians do not wish to conduct talks with the Gulf countries from a position of weakness. “Thus, it is unlikely they would resume talks before they control the domestic unrest,” he concludes.
Alkinani says that, while the growing unrest in Iran will certainly keep it from taking the talks forward, he believes this does not necessarily mean that Iran is no longer interested in improving its relations with Saudi Arabia. But in the final analysis, Alqarout says, on this occasion, “Saudi-Iranian talks experienced a major setback and are unlikely to be resumed.”
Saudi-Chinese strategic partnership
Alqarout points out that this is particularly the case after the recent signing of a Saudi-Chinese strategic partnership. He notes that the agreement included a joint statement that contained several clauses that Iran perceived as negative and as targeting its affairs, nuclear program, and regional activities.
For example, he cites China’s proposed resolution through negotiations of the dispute between Iran and the UAE over three Gulf islands. Iran deemed the statement problematic and summoned the Chinese ambassador to express its dissatisfaction.
“From Iran’s point of view,” Alqarout points out, “the GCC countries are more aggressively challenging their regional position, which would weaken the Iranians in any negotiations to take place. The added tension suggests Iran will first seek to address the newly emerging challenges before it can engage in negotiations from a position of strength.”