Bilateral talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran will not end their rivalry but could de-escalate conflict in areas where both have influence, including Yemen. News of rare talks between two of the Middle East’s biggest adversaries comes as both Riyadh and Tehran are trying to assess where they stand with U.S. President Joe Biden’s new administration. The Iraqi government’s eagerness to position Baghdad as an independent regional power instead of a weak site of proxy struggles is likely also contributing to the media attention surrounding the talks.
- The Financial Times reported on April 17 that senior Saudi and Iranian officials held direct talks in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad on April 9. Iraqi officials have since confirmed the talks and said the two sides are slated to hold another round of negotiations in the coming weeks.
- The talks reportedly focused on Yemen and Lebanon, and reportedly involved intelligence officials from both Saudi Arabia and Iran.
- Situated at a geographic crossroads in the Middle East, Iraq has long been a primary site for regional conflict. The country’s strategic location, vast resource wealth and large, ethnically diverse population provide neighboring powers multiple inroads for influence. Becoming a place of mediation between regional powerhouses rather than a victim of conflict is one of the Iraqi government’s political imperatives, especially in a precarious election year.
The shift in U.S. policy under Biden is also helping drive Saudi-Iranian diplomacy, as the White House’s new Middle East strategy forces the two regional powers to reassess their political and security relationships. For Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration’s eagerness to broker another nuclear deal with Iran is compelling Riyadh to guarantee such a deal wouldn’t threaten the kingdom’s security. And for Iran, improving ties with Saudi Arabia could also help it achieve its long-term goal of brokering regional partnerships that reduce its global isolation and help push the United States out of the Middle East.
- The United States has long sought to draw down its immense security and strategic assets in the conflict-ridden Middle East in order to pivot its focus to threats in Asia. The minimized U.S. presence will eventually create a power vacuum in the Middle East that regional powers are pragmatically and preemptively grappling with, in part by probing where their respective multilateral alliances and weaknesses are.
- For decades, Iran has sought to form a Persian Gulf security partnership with its Arab Gulf neighbors. But Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have been hesitant, due in part to their substantial security and political ties with the United States. Arab Gulf states’ growing relationships with Israel will also complicate building a better relationship with Iran.
A better understanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran may improve some security hot spots in the region, though local dynamics beyond their control will continue to create conflict. Even in the improbable case of total reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, regional instability and conflict would continue. But in the specific places where Saudi Arabia and Iran have direct influence on the ground, there’s room for improvement. Such progress could include:
- De-escalating the civil war in Yemen. Houthi attacks on Saudi territory have so far only had only limited impact on the kingdom’s vital industries, including its energy sector. But Riyadh is worried about the increasing accuracy, scope and pace of such attacks, and Iran’s economic and technical support to the Yemeni rebel group has only augmented these concerns. As a primary actor in the Yemen conflict, Saudi Arabia has a direct role in political negotiations and mediation efforts aimed at restoring peace in the country. And there’s a chance Iran could draw down some of its material support to Houthi rebels in order to create space for improved ties with Saudi Arabia.
- Nudging Lebanon toward finally forming a government. The Iran-backed political party and militant group Hezbollah hold significant influence in the Lebanese government. Saudi Arabia also has influence with the Sunni leadership in Beirut, including Prime Minister-Designate Saad Hariri. Lebanon’s prolonged political paralysis has detracted from the country’s physical and economic stability for all sides of the country’s political system. A direct Riyadh-Tehran agreement on the need to form a government could help foment some coordination between feuding actors in Beirut, as Lebanon’s prolonged political paralysis continues to undermine the country’s physical and economic stability.
- Coordinated counterterrorism efforts in Iraq. Direct talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran are unlikely to alter the overall balance of power in Baghdad, where Tehran holds significantly more influence than Riyadh via Iran’s control of powerful Iraqi militias. It could, however, yield coordination on security efforts against jihadist militants who both Saudi Arabia and Iran view as a threat. The Saudi military has been ramping up efforts to train Iraqi forces in border areas of Anbar province, where Iran-backed Shiite militias have also become increasingly key in the fight against terrorists.