Iran’s Two-pronged Diplomatic War in the Middle East

In the run-up to the June presidential election, Tehran aims to improve relations with Riyadh in part by ending the war in Yemen, on top of a quick, new nuclear deal

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Iranian President Hassan Rohani at a cabinet meeting Tuesday.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani at a cabinet meeting Tuesday.Credit: Iranian Presidency / AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has had a jam-packed and aggravating week. It began with the publication of parts of his seven-hour interview in February with an Iranian research institute, which was leaked to the Iran International website that’s funded by Saudi Arabia.

In the published excerpts, Zarif spoke about the clashes between Iran’s Foreign Ministry and Revolutionary Guards on the nuclear agreement. He said late Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani would insist that he ask the representatives at the talks to stall, and that Russia was on board in efforts to block the agreement before it was signed in 2015. “I sacrificed diplomacy for the battlefield,” Zarif lamented.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf quickly backed Zarif and an investigation was launched into who leaked the interview that was supposed to remain classified as part of Iran’s archive on political history. But criticism of Zarif wasn’t long in coming. Several members of parliament called on him to resign, while others said he should be tried for treason and harming national security.

The leak happened at a particularly sensitive time: Representatives of the signatories to the nuclear accord – Germany, Russia, China, France and Britain – are holding intensive talks in Vienna to revive the deal. Indirectly, the United States is also involved. A reviving of the accord would restore earlier conditions, in return for the lifting of U.S. sanctions.

Mikhail Ulyanov, the Russian delegate to the talks, probably wasn’t very pleased to read Zarif’s accusations about Russia, but he made sure to conceal his anger. He tweeted that “the participants will continue negotiations on restoration of the nuclear deal.”

Publicly, Russia expressed optimism about the negotiations, and it seems Zarif’s comments won’t affect the outcome of the talks, But if Zarif ever considered running in the June presidential election, his chances appear to have evaporated.

Two days after publication on Iran International, Zarif flew to Muscat, the capital of Oman, and then on to Kuwait, as part of a quick trip to the Gulf that illustrates Iran’s pincer maneuver. One arm forges ties with the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, while the other holds talks on the nuclear accord.

In Muscat, Zarif met with the spokesman for the Houthi rebels and the head of their negotiating team, Mohammed Abdul Salam, to discuss new proposals for ending the war in Yemen. In March, Saudi Arabia proposed an outline for a cease-fire and negotiations, which was rejected by the Houthis, but following several new developments, both Saudi Arabia and Iran have been singing a different tune.

The Financial Times has reported on an April 9 meeting between Saudi and Iranian representatives in Baghdad, mediated by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadhimi. Riyadh denied that there was any such meeting, while Iran neither denied nor confirmed it. On Tuesday evening, in an interview on Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said: “At the end of the day, Iran is a neighboring country and all that we hope for is to have good relations.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaking in Baabda, Lebanon, last August.Credit: Dalati Nohra / Handout via Reuters

Loveless honeymoon

This is a totally different tone from the crown prince’s aggressive rhetoric since relations between the two countries were severed in 2016 and over the six years of the war in Yemen. Though the crown prince mentioned the areas of dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran, he added: “We are working with our regional and global partners to find solutions to these problems and we hope to overcome them for good relations that benefit everyone.”

These remarks were further evidence that the wall between the two countries is cracking. Even before that, Gen. Hossein Dehghan, military adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, told the Houthi-run channel Almasirah that “Saudi Arabia isn’t considered an enemy. But this position might change if the kingdom continues taking deceitful steps against Iran.”

This ping-pong shouldn’t be construed as the start of a honeymoon between the Middle East’s two fiercest rivals, but at least it signals recognition of the need to dial down the conflict that has caused vast damage to both sides, while reconciliation could yield many benefits for both.

Saudi Arabia is trapped in a vise of American and international pressure that rests on three points – the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which continues to make Crown Prince Mohammed unwelcome at the White House and on Capitol Hill; the suppression of human rights in Saudi Arabia, which interests Joe Biden a lot more than it did Donald Trump; and the war in Yemen, which has become a central element in Biden’s Middle East policy and for which he halted part of the arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

But beyond the severe humanitarian cost exacted by this war, the wholesale slaughter of tens of thousands of people, and the starvation and diseases that it has brought, it didn't produce the quick military victory that Crown Prince Mohammed promised when he declared war. Saudi Arabia has no solution against the systematic attacks on its ships and installations, it’s mired in a deep budget deficit – because of the war and the crown prince’s grandiose projects – and the war has put the kingdom on a collision course with the U.S. administration.

Saudi Arabia, which already recognizes that there’s no longer any point in working against the nuclear accord that’s emerging in Vienna, must prepare for the moment when the sanctions are lifted and Iranian oil begins to flow onto the markets.

Initially, Iran is expected to offer 2 million barrels a day and compete with Saudi Arabia for some of its clients. Better relations with Iran could lead to cooperation between the two countries in this area and avert the kind of oil war that happened between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman getting ready for a televised interview in Riyadh on Tuesday.Credit: Saudi Royal Court / Reuters

Successful Houthis

But this isn’t a zero-sum game between the Saudis and Iran. Tehran didn’t obtain what it wanted in the Yemen war either. Yes, the Houthis control most of the country, but this control is a huge economic burden on Iran’s empty coffers, the Houthis aren’t recognized as Yemen’s rulers, and Iran reaps no economic or strategic benefit from the continuation of fighting.

If, through negotiations with Saudi Arabia, Iran can end the war and grant the Houthis a respectable share of power, it can preserve its influence without having to bear the heavy economic cost.

Iran has declared several times that it supports a diplomatic solution in Yemen, and it realizes that this position could aid it in its relations with other Gulf states, especially the United Arab Emirates, which has already withdrawn most of its forces from the country.

This stance will also earn Iran points in its relations with Europe. If Iran wants to become a commercial hub in the Middle East after the new nuclear accord comes into effect and shift the focus from Saudi Arabia, it will have to show flexibility on the Yemen issue.

The Iran-Saudi axis, if it culminates in a resumption of relations, isn’t disconnected from the nuclear channel, where Iran has a keen interest in swiftly tying things up, if possible before its June presidential election. The steady pace of the talks and the packed timetable, compared to the drawn-out talks ahead of the first nuclear accord, show that Iran has made a strategic decision to quickly conclude the negotiations.

The reason for the urgency isn’t just Iran’s serious economic crisis, because Iran could still absorb economic losses for many months, but a desire to win the public’s support in the presidential election for the conservatives’ candidate. The goal is also to avoid political disputes, mainly with the radical streams and the Revolutionary Guards.

Zarif’s accusations against the Guards aren’t really anything new. Rohani had earlier criticized the Guards, saying they were hurting the country’s economy, and asked Khamenei to reduce the portion of the Iranian economy that the Guards control. And in March he said that “it would be a great betrayal of the Iranian nation if any faction or person delayed the end of the sanctions by even an hour …. A small minority that is blocking this avenue must cease doing so. If it does, the government will be able to break the sanctions.”

There was no doubt who he was referring to. Khamenei, who approved the nuclear accord and the resumption of talks to restore it, doesn’t want another confrontation with the Revolutionary Guards over this issue and would rather present them with a done deal.

The confluence of Saudi Arabia and Iran’s strategic considerations gives Biden the chance to resolve several conflicts at once – if he agrees to lift the sanctions on Iran. Such a willingness was expressed when U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price announced, referring to the nuclear deal, “We are prepared to take the steps necessary to return to compliance with the JCPOA, including by lifting sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA.”

Next week, senior administration officials headed by Brett McGurk, coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council, will be visiting the Middle East to try to reassure America’s allies regarding the nuclear deal. The delegation may also be bringing promises for Saudi Arabia and the UAE including a green-lighting of stalled arms deals.

We’ll see whether the delegation leaves the region with gifts including negotiations to end the war in Yemen and other conciliatory gestures between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

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