Saudi Arabia's Sunni Arab identity heavily informs its attitude toward Iran. From Saudi Arabia's perspective, Iran is a large Persian country sitting at the easternmost edge of the Middle East, from where it uses the region's Shiite communities and other minorities to project power in the Arab world. The Saudis are mostly members of the Salafist sect (a subset of the Sunni branch that is highly sectarian), adding to their suspicions about Tehran's intentions. They see the Shia as deviants trying to undermine Islam.
Since mid-May, when Saudi Arabia announced that it was ready to hold formal talks with its main geopolitical opponent, Iran, the two sides have held a series of public meetings. Most were between Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir Abdollahian, with the last of those occurring in Riyadh on Aug. 27. As recently as Sept. 22, Prince Saud met Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session.
Reconciliation Falls Apart
For a time it appeared as though the shared threat from the Islamic State had compelled the two sides to work together on regional security. But the apparent diplomacy proved too good to be true. On Oct. 13, after a meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Jeddah, Prince Saud unexpectedly directed some harsh words at the Islamic republic.
The prince accused Iranian forces of occupying Syria, Iraq and Yemen. He went on to say Iran was at the heart of the various conflicts in the region, adding that if Tehran wanted to be part of the solution in Syria, it needed to withdraw its forces from there and elsewhere.
Iran reacted with surprise. Amir Abdollahian said, "If [Prince Saud's] comments were quoted precisely, then it can be said that they are against the existing atmosphere. We suggest Saudi Arabia to be careful about conspiracies made by enemies and do not waste the chance to play a positive role in the region." Separately, Iranian lawmakers and clerics have been lashing out over the prince's comments.
As the reactions from the Iranian political establishment were trickling in, a Saudi court issued a death sentence for Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a dissident Shiite cleric arrested in 2012. The conviction aggravated the situation between Saudi Arabia and Iran even more.
Distrust and Weakness
To make sense of the Saudis' sudden reversal on a dialogue with Iran, it is important to understand how the Saudis see the regional situation and to acknowledge their deep mistrust of the Iranians. As far as the Saudis are concerned, the Iranians religiously practice taqiyah (dissimulation) and thus cannot be trusted. The Saudis see Iranian calls for pan-Islamic brotherhood and Shiite-Sunni unity as highly disingenuous — a tool to lull the Sunni Arab states into a false sense of peaceful coexistence. For the Saudis and for many Sunni Arabs, the Iranians are an insidious lot who, along with their Arab Shiite allies, must be confronted. Moreover, if there is to be a negotiated settlement then it cannot be permanent and has to be from a position of strength.
The last point is problematic because the Saudis are relatively weak at the moment. Iran is on its way toward international rehabilitation because of progress toward a final agreement in the nuclear talks with the United States. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is coming under more and more criticism internationally for promoting an ideology that has given the world the likes of al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Though the Saudis see Iran's theocratic-democratic model of governance as a challenge to their monarchical system, since 1979 the Arab states have been able to prevent Tehran from exporting its model. But the 2011 popular uprisings brought about the meltdown of Arab republican autocracies. The Arab Spring has not yet affected the Arab monarchies, but there is growing pressure for political reform even from within the Saudi ruling elite's inner circle.
One effect of the Arab Spring has been that, with other countries in the region distracted, Iran has had more room to maneuver. The Saudis had hoped that the civil war in Syria would be a critical blow to Iranian influence in the region. Instead, the conflict has gone terribly awry for Riyadh. The Saudis also hoped the emergence of the Islamic State would, as a major jihadist force, undermine Iranian influence in Iraq and the Levant. Instead, the group has threatened the Saudis, who have already been dealing with al Qaeda's influence on the domestic and regional front. Another source of frustration for Riyadh in Syria is the United States' reluctance to support the Saudis' desire for regime change in Damascus.
With the Saudis focused on battling the Shia, the Muslim Brotherhood and now the Islamic State, an important development has taken place to Saudi Arabia's south in Yemen. The Iranian-backed al-Houthi movement is no longer a regional rebel group of the Zaidi sect; it has become a mainstream national player, seizing Sanaa in mid-September. Since then, it has taken over many areas well south of the capital.
The Saudis were caught off-guard by the al-Houthi surge in Yemen, a country whose traditional stakeholders for decades have been beholden to Riyadh. The phenomenal rise of the al-Houthis was possible because the Saudis lost influence with the Yemeni tribes and because the old ruling elite in Sanaa had been badly fragmented by the fall of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Saudis feel that while they were negotiating with the Iranians on regional security, Tehran double-crossed them by quietly supporting the al-Houthis to impose themselves on Sanaa and beyond.
Meanwhile, there is a fragile calm in Bahrain. In 2011, the Saudis sent troops to help Manama put down an uprising in which the island nation's Shiite majority was calling for the Sunni monarchy to share power with an elected parliament. With the Saudis' help, the Bahraini government has prevented the opposition from creating unrest, but the situation is far from stable. On Oct. 11, the opposition announced it would boycott upcoming parliamentary elections.
It is this regional situation that led the Saudis to reverse course with the Iranians. From Riyadh's perspective, diplomacy is not helping it to contain Tehran. In fact, it sees its rival benefiting from the process by securing its influence in Iraq and even in Syria. To make matters worse, the Saudis believe Tehran sees their willingness to negotiate as a sign of weakness. As a result, the Saudis would like to improve their own strategic situation before sitting down with the Iranians again.
Riyadh's Next Step
The Saudis miscalculated when they started to openly engage with the government of President Hassan Rouhani. Much has changed in the region between when the dialogue began and now. For instance, the gulf between the United States and Iran on the nuclear issue was quite wide in July. Washington and Tehran have made considerable progress in bridging that gap in recent weeks. Furthermore, the Islamic State did not weaken Iran and the Shia in Iraq as many thought it would back in June.
The Saudis will be working to mobilize forces to fight the al-Houthis in Yemen and will continue to back their proxies in Syria. But the critical issue that Riyadh has yet to resolve is how to fight Iran and its Shiite allies without empowering transnational jihadist forces such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda in the process. While this conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is going on, the U.S.-led coalition will be trying to fight the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The Saudi-Iranian dispute will undermine this effort.
The dialogue that the Saudis started with the Iranians is over, and the two sides will not seriously negotiate again until the Saudis feel their strategic position has improved — or is weakened so much that they have no choice but to talk.