Opinion |

Saudi Arabia Is Talking to Iran. It’s a Potent Sign of Riyadh’s Desperation

As Biden strides towards a nuclear deal, an anxious, diminished and increasingly isolated Saudi kingdom faces a grim outlook – and negotiation with the Iranian enemy, through gritted teeth, appears the only way out

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Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the opening of the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina November 30, 2018
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the opening of the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. November 30, 2018.Credit: Sergio Moraes/ REUTERS

There’s no need to be surprised by reports that envoys from Saudi Arabia and Iran have been negotiating in secret in Baghdad. Nor by the fact that the negotiations have been vigorously denied. Nor that the Saudi crown prince now has uncommonly constructive things to say (and on the record) about his country's possible future relationship with Iran.

In the Biden era, negotiation is normative and essential again. The new U.S. administration is building up to the resumption, or recreation, of Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Iran. The 'maximum pressure' policy of the Trump years has been banished from sight. 

Iran's regional enemies believe a deal is inevitable, and that it will do their cause great harm. Hence the need to get ahead of the game.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is delivering a speech this week during a videoconference in the capital Tehran. He is seen next to views of Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant.Credit: - - AFP

Negotiation is, at least on the Saudis' part, proceeding from a position of weakness. Where once the country felt strong – with the advent of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his proposed reforms eliciting guarded optimism from the kingdom's Western allies – now it feels decidedly diminished. 

MBS was a friend of Donald Trump and was allowed, in a manner of speaking, to get away with murder. But when the Democrats won the presidential mandate, all this fell away. For them, the previous administration’s friendliness with Riyadh is cause for suspicion of the kingdom. Saudi participation in the war in Yemen is not excusable. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi is an indelible black mark. 

Biden and his people have no time for Saudi hobbyhorses like its years-long blockade of Qatar – now ended, possibly with an eye to the White House. Nor for the kingdom's implacable opposition to Iran. 

Saudi anxieties go deeper than poor public relations. The Saudis feel they are running out of road. Whereas once the kingdom could assemble a somewhat ramshackle coalition to counter Iranian expansionism – and on occasion to fight its militias and proxies where they threatened to do damage – now, it stands largely alone.

In Syria, Iranian proxies and Russia assist an Assad regime whose survival is now assured. Regular Israeli air strikes have not stopped those proxies embedding themselves within regime territory. The Saudis appreciate Israel's attempts to sabotage Iranian nuclear ambitions, but do not believe these efforts can entirely halt Iran's converging paths to a nuclear weapon, nor rein in its takeover of neighboring countries.

Despite the Trump administration's inelegant attempts to have Israel and the Arab states play nice in order to join forces to counterbalance Iran, co-operation to that end is still limited.

A streak of light is seen in the night sky in the vicinity of the Syrian capital Damascus during what Syrian authorities said was an Israeli air strike, in this handout released by state news agency SCredit: SANA/ REUTERS

Benjamin Netanyahu has not proven the tough-guy container of Iran he portrays himself to be. His strikes in Syria have not seriously affected Assad’s survival or Iran’s takeover of the country. But if Netanyahu is replaced as prime minister, the Saudis believe, even his bellicose rhetorical opposition to Iran may be lost.

In Yemen, the Saudis believe the Houthis to be Iranian cut-outs, directed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards, and the threats they pose to Saudi territory and its economy to be a powerful weapon in Iranian hands.

The Houthis are on the advance. They hold much of Yemen and are in the process of mounting a bloody, and effective, offensive on Marib. The bombing campaign with which the Saudis tried to stop them has become an internationally reviled tactic of dubious effectiveness. Yemen's internationally-recognized government is in disarray. No one is in a position to stop the Houthis' onward march.

Houthi leaders have also claimed a number of attacks by ballistic missiles and drones on Saudi Arabia proper. International investigations believe the missiles and the drones to be Iranian, rather than Houthi, projects. Iranian state media has published video of the state testing ‘suicide drones' of the same kind in recent days.

Houthi soldiers march during a funeral procession for Houthi fighters killed in recent fighting against government forces in Marib province, in Sanaa, Yemen. February 17, 2021.Credit: KHALED ABDULLAH/ REUTERS

Whoever is mounting them, these attacks have struck the Saudi capital, Riyadh, many times, and have done great damage to the confidence and security of the Saudi oil economy. A combination drone and missile attack on two sites in 2019 temporarily halted up to half of the country's oil processing. A drumbeat of further attacks has continued ever since.

Yemen's war has bogged the Saudis down and now seems to provide the rhetorical cover for these continual bombings. The kingdom's leaders are willing to make considerable concessions to secure their own territory and to exit Yemen. Last month, the Saudi foreign minister announced a unilateral ceasefire in Yemen, hoping for the same result. Of course, this gambit failed. 

With maximum pressure a thing of the past, negotiation through gritted teeth appears the only way out.

Saudi policymakers may cautiously hope that negotiation may not mean wholesale capitulation. Iran has constructed a form of status quo with Turkey – its foe in Syria and Iraq – that could model what Saudi Arabia may be seeking. Turkey and Iran are not friends, per se. The foreign conflicts in which they back opposite sides continue unabated. But escalation between the powers has largely been avoided.

By contrast, the situation for the kingdom is predominately grim. It faces defeat in Yemen and constant cross-border attacks at home. The anti-Iran coalition it hoped to build is, if not about to collapse, undoubtedly on the back foot. All the while, Iran entrenches itself in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen and wholeheartedly pursues its nuclear ambitions. 

A favorable American president has been defeated and replaced by another who is not amenable to Saudi overtures. And the United States will soon, in Saudi eyes, conclude a hated deal with Iran at any price.

It's as good a time as any to try to negotiate an escape.

James Snell is a British writer whose work on the Middle East, past and present, has appeared in numerous international publications including The Telegraph, The Spectator, The Critic, Prospect, National Review and History Today. Twitter: @James_P_Snell

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