Analysis

Saudi Arabia Recognizes Its Weakness and Is Ready to Talk to the Iranian Foe

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has suffered a raft of regional failures, may have to cut his losses by negotiating with the great Shi’ite enemy

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and Saudi King Salman in Jeddah, September 25, 2019.
Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Royal Court / Reuters

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Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi had barely enough time to unpack his suitcase after his trip to China last month when he took off for Jeddah to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The urgency of the September 25 visit, 10 days after the attack on Saudi oil facilities, was apparently linked to reports that the missiles and drones were fired from a base of the Revolutionary Guards or a Shi’ite militia in Iraq.

Iraqi media outlets, citing reports from Abdul-Mahdi’s office, said the Iraqi prime minister feared the outbreak of a new war in which Iraq could be a target, so he quickly considered mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia and possibly arranging a meeting in Baghdad between the Saudi crown prince and Iranian President Hassan Rohani.

On the face of it, this initiative seemed unrealistic because only two months earlier, Iraqi President Barham Salih proposed a similar foray that was rebuffed by the Saudis.

But circumstances have changed. A war against or in Iraq against pro-Iranian forces is the last thing the Iraqi prime minister needs given that Iraq is deep in a violent clash with thousands of protesters demanding his removal because of the country’s economic crisis. The protesters aren’t content with shouting slogans against the corrupt regime and its colossal waste of money, they’re also demanding that Iraq be rid of the Iranian presence, with a dismantling of the Shi’ite militias operating under the Iranians while enjoying Iraqi funding.

From Riyadh’s perspective, the civil revolt in Iraq looks like an opportunity to strengthen its influence over its southern neighbor. The Saudis’ relationship with Baghdad took an important turn this year when Prince Mohammed opened the border crossing between Iraq and Saudi Arabia for the first time and committed to invest in Iraq’s power grid.

Saudi Arabia has no illusions that Iraq can or would agree to disengage from Iran and force Tehran to withdraw its forces. Iraq and Iran do $12 billion in trade annually; Iraq is dependent on Iranian gas and electricity and there is the Shi’ite religious connection between the two countries.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019.
Yuri Kadobnov / Pool via Reuters

But it looks that Saudi Arabia realizes that in the struggle for regional hegemony it doesn’t have the upper hand, so it’s adopting a new strategy of trying to win influence and access to balance the Iranians. As part of this strategy, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in an interview with CBS, said for the first time that the problems with Iran and the question of safe passage in the Persian Gulf can’t be resolved militarily.

The Saudis’ Pakistani pilots

These remarks, which were applauded in Iran, aren’t the result of some celestial enlightenment that descended on the crown prince. The attack on the oil installations embarrassingly proved Saudi Arabia’s military weakness and vulnerability.

Three weeks after the attack, there still is no clear evidence on who shot the drones and missiles and from where. Saudi missile defense systems costing hundreds of millions of dollars didn’t work, and Saudi personnel aren’t up to addressing these types of attacks. The Saudi air force must rely partly on Pakistani pilots, including in the war in Yemen.

Unlike the U.S. government, which quickly blamed Iran, Riyadh suggested waiting until the results of the investigation were in; later it blamed Iran for overall responsibility for the attack but not for carrying it out. If Saudi Arabia had any doubts about America’s readiness to take action against Iran, they were shed when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Prince Mohammed that the decision on responding against Iran was Riyadh’s, and that the United States could assist but not fight in its stead. President Donald Trump added that if Saudi Arabia needed help he could lend a hand, but the Saudis would have to pay.

Diplomacy has now become the only viable option for drawing up the map of the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia seems to be looking for possible mediators for negotiations with Iran. Shortly after the annual UN General Assembly, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said he had been requested by Prince Mohammed and Trump to try to mediate between Riyadh and Tehran. Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei reported that Iran had received letters from the crown prince through a third country, but he did not name it.

While Khan talked about his brokerage mission, Abbas al-Hasnawi, an official in the Iraqi prime minister’s office, told Middle East Eye that the Saudis had given the green light to Iraqi mediation with Iran, and that the Iraqi prime minister had already given each party the other’s terms for talks. Hasnawi added that Iraq’s national security adviser, Falih Alfayyadh, was in Washington to coordinate the negotiation time line with the U.S. administration and that Iraq was told: “If there will be a potential deal in the region that includes Yemen, Syria and Iraq, the Americans have no problem with that.”

The day after the interview was published, and against the backdrop of the positive Iranian reactions, Iran’s parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani declared that “direct dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia may solve many political and military problems in the region.” This isn’t a new position, as several times in the past year Iran has mulled negotiations with Saudi Arabia through Oman and Pakistan, and also through European officials.

President Hassan Rohani chairing a cabinet meeting in Tehran, October 2, 2019.
Iranian Presidency / AFP

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir quickly responded to the reports with a non-denial denial; he said that “sister states” – meaning Iraq – “have tried to achieve calm, and we’ve informed them that Saudi Arabia always seeks security and stability in the region.” And don’t forget the Saudi billionaires who were forced to pay billions after Prince Mohammed detained them at a hotel; they’re yearning for revenge.

Handy list of foul-ups

Jubeir set six conditions for Saudi Arabia’s willingness to negotiate, among them “ending Iran’s involvement in the affairs of other countries; stopping support for terrorist organizations; abandoning the policy of destruction and sowing conflict; and freezing the plan to develop nuclear weapons and the ballistic-missile program.”

Jubeir refuses to say whether these are prerequisites that Iran must meet before negotiations can be discussed or whether they’re principles that Saudi Arabia will stand on if negotiations begin. But the Saudi conditions seem vague enough to leave plenty of room for interpretation and general agreements. They don’t totally negate talks and don’t threaten any military action. In fact, the foreign minister took care not to directly accuse Iran of attacking the oil facilities and “merely” blamed Tehran for arming its loyalists with missiles that harm Yemeni civilians and the kingdom’s security.

The prospect of negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Iran may lie in the portfolio of Prince Mohammed’s diplomatic and military failures: the boycott and blockade of Qatar initiated by Saudi Arabia; the fiasco in Lebanon where he tried to oust the prime minister; the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which dumped Saudi Arabia in the pit of pariah nations in the West; the military failure in Yemen and the way Riyadh’s partner, the United Arab Emirates, abandoned the arena; and now the attack on the oil facilities. They all label Prince Mohammed a failed leader unable to protect his country’s interests.

Around him is a bevy of princes removed from power, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was the crown prince until he was ousted, and Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, the National Guard commander for years.

The killing (or murder) of Abdulaziz al-Fagham, King Salman’s personal bodyguard, was portrayed as a crime in which a friend of Fagham’s acted out of “personal” disagreements. But the Saudis prefer the version being circulated by the anonymous blogger Mujtahid, who wrote that Fagham was murdered in the palace and not in his friend’s home.

According to Mujtahid, who provides controversial reports on what goes on in the royal court, Prince Mohammed considered Fagham disloyal and sought to replace him with an associate. Indeed, Fagham was replaced Gen. Saad al-Qahtani, the cousin of Saud al-Qahtani, the former adviser to Prince Mohammed who is suspected of planning Khashoggi’s murder.

The need to manage two fronts, the domestic one against his rivals and the external one in the region and further afield with hesitant U.S. backing, may push Prince Mohammed onto a new diplomatic path with Iran to reduce the threat to the kingdom and the number of explosive things he needs to address. As the United States continues to push for direct negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue, Mohammed will probably have to toe the line so he can be part of the process and not leave Saudi Arabia out of the circle of influence.