By Camelia Entekhabifard
May 15, 2021
As spring gives way to summer, the Middle East is seeing new lines drawn. In these crucial days, long-term strategies are being formulated.
Heavy clashes between Jews and Palestinians inside the borders of Israel and events in the Gaza Strip and West Bank have increased international support for a definite solution to this conflict. This time around, the talks might be hosted not by the United States, but with mediation from China and Russia.
Increase of violence in Afghanistan as US forces are leaving, concerns about a crisis there, and an uptick in attacks on Saudi Arabia by Houthis in Yemen are among the unpleasant news we are sure to hear more of.
We also have next month’s presidential elections in Iran which has led to speculations about the next president and about the thinking of Iran’s Supreme Leader and Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on their strategic policies in the region. Add this to Lebanon’s political and economic crisis and a dead-end in US nuclear talks with Iran and one thing becomes clear: The two important poles of the region, Iran and Saudi Arabia, must have diplomatic relations to safeguard their long-term interests.
After all the harsh words Iran had for the Saudis, and after refusing to issue an official apology following the burning of its consulate buildings in Tehran and Mashhad, the officials of the Iranian regime now find no way but to talk to Saudis; they have confirmed the confidential talks in Iraq.
Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, has personally confirmed that the talks took place. Speaking to reporters in Damascus on Wednesday, Zarif told reporters that Tehran is ready for close ties with Riyadh.
Countries of the region also welcome close ties with Iran. Zarif pointed out that Iran-Saudi ties could lead to improving peace and security in the region, especially Yemen.
The Middle East’s geopolitics are going through rapid shifts. The interest of world’s biggest superpower, the United States, now has less interest in the region and its clashes.
For both Iran and the Saudis, as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman said in an interview with Al Arabiya, common interests can lead to better ties. Speaking clearly, he said Iran and Saudi Arabia finding common interests could lead to growth for both nations. These open words have made the leaders of Tehran think.
The interests Crown Prince Mohammed talks about revolve around pushing forward the Saudi Vision 2030, a plan based on monumental economic reforms. This massive effort at diversification of the Saudi economy away from oil will be based on improving trade, business and foreign investment. But how can it get anywhere if Iran-backed Houthis keep raining missiles on Saudi territory? And when Iran-linked militias in Iraq threaten Saudis and destabilize Lebanon and Syria?
For the long-term economic plans of Saudi Arabia to be successful, “security” is key. For Vision 2030 dreams to be realized, the region needs security and political and diplomatic ties are needed to solve problems.
But what interest is in there for Iran?
The recent leaked voice recording of Zarif proves the wrong policies of Iran in the region, set by the security forces aligned with the IRGC, have hurt the country. But will an Iran run by military men, who also run the country’s diplomacy, according to Zarif, be willing to change policy? The countries of the region have long said they’d like to renew ties with Iran. But this can only happen if their main demand, meaning Iran cutting its support to militias that threaten these countries, is realized.
Even in today’s Iran, where 60 percent of the population is Shiite, the government in Baghdad, despite all of its ties with the Iranian regime, doesn’t tolerate Iran’s interference anymore and is fed up by the instability caused by Iran. On the other hand, millions of Iranians sign up every year to go to the Hajj pilgrimage, which has now been backed up by the Hajj being shut down last year due to Covid-19.
In the last few years, the Iranian regime has tried to increase pilgrimage to Karbala’s shrine of Imam Hussein and make it a rival to the house of God in Makkah. But this will never work since Iranian Muslims, like Muslims everywhere, will never regard anything as equal to a pilgrimage to Makkah and Madinah.
The pressure of Iranian Muslims who are fed-up with not being able to perform Hajj might be one of the pressures that will lead the Iranian regime to re-establish ties with Saudi Arabia.
The Iranian officials also see the folly of their grand policies, which has led countries in the region to make amends with the Iranian regime’s biggest enemy in the region, Israel.
The change I speak of started from the term of Donald Trump and the United States’ changing strategy in the region. Biden is continuing the shift.
It is now obvious that the Middle East has lost its importance for the US. Enjoying shale oil resources, which are the largest in the world means that the US will soon not need any oil from the Middle East. Washington’s main priority remains Israel’s security in the region. The Iranian regime’s behavior and its threatening of Arab allies gave Trump a golden opportunity to turn Israel’s strategic enemies, Arab countries, into its friendly countries. There is no longer fear of historical hostility between Israel and Arabs.
The US now considers China the biggest threat to itself and will like to pivot its attention on this country and the Pacific.
Iran’s neighbors have witnessed these changes. Saudi Arabia and other countries of the region have long attempted not to become the victims of superpowers. Saudi Arabia’s extensive ties with China, Russia, India and Pakistan are based on the same understanding and a crucial reckoning with the United States’ shifting foreign policy focus.
The Iranian regime drives away other countries of the region from itself by building militias and creating fear. Its economy is destroyed and it is isolated in the region. The people’s conditions and security have become fragile. It is now forced to go through a deep shift in its regional policies.
If Iran is now open to talking to Saudi Arabia and to de-escalation it is not because it is worried about a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen (as claimed by Zarif in his talk to reporters in Syria), but Israel’s expanding ties in the region.
As Crown Prince Mohammed clearly stated, peace and security in the region will help the interests of both countries. For Vision 2030 and the welfare of its citizens, it is imperative for Riyadh to work with Tehran to ensure security, not least on its own borders.
The people of Yemen are Arab after all, and many of them have close tribal ties with Saudi Arabia. Naturally, Arab countries care more for people of Yemen and the famine there than the Iranian regime does.
There is also the question of Palestine and the quest for a Palestinian state. Saudi Arabia regards this as a precondition for their ties with Israel and have always insisted on this. This is an alarm for Iran that does all that it can in the hope that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will delay the long Palestinian quest for statehood and thus normalization of ties between Israel and the greatest power in the Arab and Muslim world.
The problem of countries of the region with Iran is its support for militias. The region has always expressed a desire for better ties with Iran., but this can only happen if Tehran truly decides to change its regional policies.