Cooling the Iran Saudi Rivalry

Despite ongoing international and domestic tensions in the Persian Gulf region, there are some signs that Iran and Saudi Arabia might be looking for ways to ease their historically fraught relationship.

The warring factions in Yemen continue to take small steps to ease the war and its impact on civilians under UN-sponsored talks in Stockholm. None of this would happen if Tehran and Riyadh – the primary supporters of the various warring parties – were not willing to at least provide tacit support to the efforts. Secondly, press reports indicate that Iran and Saudi Arabia have recently engaged in secret talks aimed at easing tensions. The two countries are figuring out their ongoing rivalry when U.S. engagement in the region is even more uncertain given domestic U.S. politics and sudden U.S. policy changes in the region (i.e., the (now partial) withdrawal of forces from northeast Syria). None of this means that Riyadh and Tehran are going to become peaceful neighbors or cease their rivalry for predominance in the region. The requirements for each regimes’ legitimacy will not allow for open agreements that give much to the other. In addition, the ongoing internal and external pressure on Tehran may eventually undermine any rapprochement by Riyadh.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are most likely to reach a tacit or explicit but secret agreements in a small number of areas.

The first has already been announced: a return of Iranian pilgrims to Mecca for the Hajj. The second, which has been underway for a while, is pulling back of the two states in Yemen. In part this was forced upon the Saudis when their main coalition partner – the UAE – withdrew its troops from the field. In part this was also due to increasing U.S. bipartisan opposition to the war and Washington’s role in supporting Saudi Arabia’s air campaign. Finally, and this is largely a matter of speculation, it is possible that Saudi Arabia and Iran are working on a modus vivendi in Syria now that the U.S. has significantly reduced its role, Turkey’s role is larger, and the Assad regime – with Russian support – appears to be more stable. This may simply be Saudi Arabia pulling back support for some of the Sunni Syrian groups. It is unclear what Iran would be willing to give up in terms of its presence or influence in parts of Syria.

Saudi Arabia’s hand is relatively weak as it looks to a central issue — safeguarding its petroleum production and export infrastructure against future Iranian threats or attacks.

First, defense is very difficult with such a sprawling set of targets. Second, the failure of Washington to retaliate on Riyadh’s behalf or to support a response to the Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia this past September points to the limits of Washington’s defense umbrella against Iran. Third, the recent IPO for Saudi Aramco may increase Tehran’s ability to hold Saudi oil infrastructure hostage to future attacks due to the potential impact on the share price. While Iran may agree to hold off on future attacks, it will want something in return. While Riyadh can deliver on peripheral issues for Iran by reducing its support for Sunni groups in Syria or Yemen, the Saudi regime cannot deliver relief from U.S. sanctions. This leaves any agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia with a fatal flaw – the temptation for Tehran to attack oil production and export facilities to try to gain leverage vis a vis Washington.

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