Iran says it wants peace with Saudis, but sends Houthi drones instead

So what does Turkey think about Saudi Arabia’s possible détente with Iran?

HOUTHI FOLLOWERS stand by piles of Yemeni currency during a campaign in September to collect supplies for fighters battling government forces. (photo credit: KHALED ABDULLAH/ REUTERS)
HOUTHI FOLLOWERS stand by piles of Yemeni currency during a campaign in September to collect supplies for fighters battling government forces.
What is Iran’s strategy now that discussions of an Iran-Saudi Arabia warming of relations have become well known?
First, it is interesting that while Turkey’s regime has been pretending it wants reconciliation with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the real substantive discussion may involve the kingdom and Iran. That is because Turkey can be more of a threat to Saudi Arabia’s leadership role in the region, while Iran is an antagonist that might be quieted by discussions.
Second, what is important to know is that Iran has acknowledged the discussions with Saudi Arabia – at the same time that Iran’s media brags of more Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia using drones.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif even met with the Houthis. He is on a regional “Ramadan trip” to shore up support for the Islamic Republic. His other goal is ostensibly to make it seem like Iran is pushing stability and a kind of “Pax Irana” in the region.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh has illustrated Tehran’s interest in a new era of interaction and cooperation. These discussions, which were at first more secret, go back at least to January. They coincide with US President Joe Biden taking office.
After former US president Donald Trump left office, Turkey and Saudi Arabia understood that things would change in the region. For Riyadh, that means a concern that the US will not be as supportive; for Turkey, a similar problem exists.
This week, Khatibzadeh was asked about the Saudi ties.
“Changing the tone and discourse will help reduce tensions but will not lead to a serious practical result until the behavior changes,” he said. “We have always been ready for talks at any level and in any form with our neighbors, including Saudi Arabia.”
“We think that the countries of the region and the people of the two countries will see the result of such talks, which are more peace, stability and progress,” Khatibzadeh said. “Undoubtedly, the two countries have no doubts about this.”
While the Foreign Ministry was talking about stability, the Iranian-backed Houthis launched drones at Najran and King Khalid military base in Saudi Arabia, Iran’s Tasnim News Agency reported. Houthi drone attacks have also increased since the new US administration came into office. The Houthi rebels in Yemen, who control a third of the country, have launched an offensive on the city of Marib.
The Saudis have dealt with drone and ballistic-missile attacks for years. However, the question for Riyadh is whether US support will continue. The kingdom may have calculated that discussions with Iran could reduce Houthi attacks.
This is a tacit admission that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps may control Houthi decision-making about targeting Saudi Arabia. It appears coordinated because in 2019, a series of escalating attacks on Iran, including an apparent attack from Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq and an attack on Shaybah and then on Abqaiq from Iran, showed that the IRGC was coordinating with the Houthis in Yemen and the PMU (Popular Mobilization Units, a mostly Shi’ite militia) in Iraq against the kingdom.
From Riyadh’s point of view, this is a major threat. It has sought to repair relations with Iraq over the past four years and has achieved some success on that front. Of course, this matters because Saudi Arabia in 1990 was threatened by an aggressive Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. After Iraq was crushed by the US-led coalition, it became a weakened state, no longer capable of threatening neighbors.
Iraq has now been taken over in part by Iranian-backed militias. For Riyadh, this turn of events is not helpful; weakening Saddam may have been necessary, but turning Iraq into an Iranian front line is a major threat.
Having Iran in Yemen is another threat. Securing some kind of deal with Iran to reduce tensions in Iraq and Yemen, as well as stopping another Abqaiq, is in Saudi Arabia’s interests, especially in the absence of a clear US commitment.
These are the aftershocks of US policy as well as Iran’s aggression and changes in the region. In some ways, these changes have brought Saudi Arabia and Israel closer since 2015. But Riyadh must balance that with realpolitik as well.
Of interest is not only Iran’s Janus-faced behavior, where it talks stability with Riyadh but tells the Houthis to step up the drone attacks on Saudi Arabia. Turkey also sees a changing region. During the Trump years, Ankara used its Washington lobbyists to get a blank check from the US to not only erode freedoms at home but to launch ethnic-cleansing invasions of Afrin and Tel Abyad in Syria and to export mercenaries to Libya and Azerbaijan.
Ankara realizes that Washington’s blank check is over. The US has recognized the Armenian Genocide, a symbolic standing-up to Turkish authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s endless threats.
So what does Turkey think about Saudi Arabia’s possible détente with Iran?
“It is no secret that the Saudis, who the Biden administration abandoned in Yemen, wish to come out of isolation,” columnist Burhanettin Duran wrote Monday in Daily Sabah, a Turkish pro-government daily. “The [Saudi Arabia] crown prince’s decision to abandon building an anti-Iran bloc has many dimensions to it.”
Turkish media is almost completely controlled by Erdogan’s AK Party or answers to the government, a fact revealed by human-rights organizations that say Ankara is one of the largest jailers of journalists. This means that what appears in Daily Sabah indicates a stamp of approval from the government.
So this is Ankara’s possible view of what Riyadh is doing. Turkey thinks Saudi Arabia is isolated.
“Turkey’s normalization attempts with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), along with its rumored pursuit of de-escalation with Saudi Arabia and Israel, are directly related to this reality,” Daily Sabah reported.
Turkey seems to think a regional “reset” is in order. Iran also seems to think so. The question facing Riyadh is whether its discussions with Tehran can bring the fruits of de-escalation in Yemen.
One of the cards Iran has is that its proxies terrorize the region and give it leverage. That is why it has escalated rocket attacks on US facilities in Iraq in recent months. It uses these attacks to give countries a mafia-like offer: “We can reduce the attacks if you give us a deal.”
From Vienna to the talks with Riyadh, Tehran plays the same game. And no country has decided to do to Iran what it does to others, such as launch drone strikes inside the Islamic Republic and claim that some nameless group did it.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry says it wants stability. It even pitches some oddly named agreement called “HOPE” to reduce tensions in the Gulf, tensions that rose because of Iran’s actions.
The problem is that its Foreign Ministry doesn’t speak for Iran. The IRGC does, and the IRGC continues the attacks.