The Iranian-Saudi rivalry: How likely are peace talks to improve the conflicted situation in the Middle East?
Pauline Mortel | 15 Aug 2021
Background of the Middle Eastern Cold War
Raging in the Middle East since 1979, the Iranian-Saudi rivalry, which was born of the strong antagonism that existed between Tehran and Riyadh, has shaped alliances of the Sunni Arch and the Shia crescent, as well as peace efforts in the region for more than forty years. Known as the Middle Eastern Cold War, a regional equivalent of the Cold War, this conflicted situation is indeed perfectly defined by the “impossible peace, improbable war” assertion of the French political scientist R. Aron (1948) that was used to describe the relationships between the US and the USSR.
This conflict first has its origins in the ideological divergences that lies between two separate branches of Islam. Shiism, on the one hand, which is the Iranian religion, and Sunnism, on the other hand, which gathers the majority of Muslims, including Saudi ones. This is correlated with the presence of two major holy cities, Medina and Mecca, in Saudi Arabia which places the country at the religious center of the Muslim world.
After the 1979 Iranian Revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini that marked the turning point in the relationships between the two countries, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia began to feel threatened by the growing power of Iran as a possible contender for regional leadership. Given Riyadh’s historical alliance with the US, the cooling of relationships that followed was even exacerbated by the strong opposition of the newly created regime to Western interference in Middle Eastern affairs, and especially to the American imperialist behaviour in the region.
Moreover, as major world exporters of oil and hydrocarbons, the rivalry that lies between the two countries also revolves around economic concerns, providing that the Saudi oil production has reached 11.8 million barrels per day in 2019, while the Iranian one amounted 3.5 million barrels.
Recent developments of the conflict, which have included the increasing military expenditure of Saudi Arabia, as part of the ‘Saudi Plan Vision 2030’, the involvement of both countries in proxy wars in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon as well as the Iranian willingness to acquire WMD, have contributed to growing tensions. After the diplomatic relationships of the countries were suspended in 2016 following the execution of a Shia cleric by Saudi Arabia, indirect talks remained the only practicable solution for the two countries, relying on the mediation proposed by Iraq and Pakistan.
Is there any room for an improvement of the situation?
While the conflict therefore seemed unlikely to come to an end so far, recent peace talks that have been initiated from May 2021 by the two competing powers seem to bring new winds of hope concerning a positive evolution of the conflict and the situation as a whole in the Middle East. These peace talks have been triggered by Saudi leaders who, for the first time in five years, established diplomatic contacts and dialogue with Iranian representatives.
However, this sudden change of attitude of Saudi Arabia and the subsequent rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran seem to be rather contextual, given the interests that Saudi officials currently find in getting closer to their Iranian counterpart. The consciousness of Saudi Arabia that it might lose its greatest support in terms of military and economic resources, namely the US and its newly elected Biden Administration, might explain at first this demonstrated willingness to look for de-escalation. The arrival to power of Biden, who branded Saudi Arabia of pariah state has indeed already announced through the White House press secretary Jen Psaki that the “US are going to recalibrate its relationship with Saudi Arabia” has made Riyadh fear the loss of its main financial support, which would weaken even more its situation on the international scene after the assassination of journalist Khashoggi which was strongly criticized by Western powers in October 2018. Furthermore, the assertion of Biden that it would no longer give US partners in the region “a blank check to pursue policies at odds with American interests and values” already announces a possible turnaround in the balance of power of the Middle East that would not benefit Riyadh. Similarly, economic difficulties recently faced by Saudi Arabia are not insignificant in the decision taken by the country to open the dialogue with Iran.
Moreover, the interference of external countries in regional affairs could as well prevent talks from reaching a positive conclusion. On that point, the recent interest of China and Russia in allying with Iran could contribute to fuel the tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, and even degenerate into an open conflict between Saudi Arabia backed by the US and its biggest opponents, Beijing and Moscow supporting Iran. While the reconciliation in January 2021 between Qatar and Saudi Arabia could enable Riyadh to impose itself as a regional leader, the threat posed by the emergence of a China-Iran axis after the signatory in 2020 of an agreement involving 400 billion investment in the oil and gas industries in Iran by the People’s Republic, could challenge peace talks in the Middle East on the long term. Furthermore, the revitalization of the Iranian-Russian relationships since the involvement of Moscow in the Syrian Civil War in 2015 with the strengthening of their economic, diplomatic and military ties coupled with their common perception of the threat posed by the U.S. in particular reinforces the idea that “relations between Russia and Iran are multifaceted [and] multilateral”, as argued by Putin in 2020.
Regarding the nuclear issue, the divergence of Saudi Arabia and Iran might continue to increase tensions as well, if no agreement was to be found by the leaders. The claim made by Salman bin Abdulaziz at the 2020 United Nations annual meeting of World Leaders that Iran exploited the 2015 Nuclear Deal “to intensify its expansionist activities, create its terrorist networks and use terrorism [arguing that] a comprehensive solution and a firm international position [were] required” therefore demonstrates the extent to which tensions between the two countries are deeply intertwined with nuclear issues. It also proves that this nuclear subject was still of great concern for Riyadh lately.
If Saudi Arabia and Iran definitely want to improve their relationships and de-escalate tensions in the long term, this first step forward undertaken in April 2021 will have to be confirmed over time by a cooperative behaviour of the two countries with an alignment on burning issues in the region, accompanied by a pacific resolution of their existing disputes, including their proxy wars.