Saudi Arabia and Iran have seen years of Proxy Wars against each other in the Middle East but things have started to de-escalate as the arch nemeses hold ‘secret’ bilateral talks. However, the US feels overlooked.
- Iran recently confirmed that it is in talks with Saudi Arabia with a possible quid pro quo arrangement in the offing that might change the contours of geopolitics in the Middle East.
- The Biden Administration’s stance vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia has made Riyadh feel detached, which is now focused on mending regional ties with GCC countries especially pivoting around Yemen.
- The US has not been receptive to the Iran-Saudi bilateral dialogue due to the ‘secretive’ nature of the talks.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have been working towards improving bilateral relations which have steadily deteriorated in recent years. Both sides snapped diplomatic ties in 2016. In a media interview, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) had said that Riyadh wanted to improve relations with Tehran. Officials from both countries have begun talks in the month of April in Baghdad. Some important progress seems to have been made with Iran in the latest round of discussions held in the 1st week of May. Iran has reportedly asked Saudi Arabia to help sell its oil and circumvent US sanctions in lieu of limiting Houthi attacks on the kingdom’s oil facilities. The important aspect is that neither side has denied that talks are taking place.
Watch: Are Tensions Between Saudi Arabia and Iran Easing?
Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif also made the point, that better ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia were essential for regional security. Tehran also hasn’t denied that it is engaged in talks with Saudi Arabia.
Washington responds cautiously on Saudi Arabia reviving strained relations
The US has been cautious in its response to the attempts by both the middle-east countries to ease tensions. An official in the Biden Administration while commenting on the same said:
It is the goal of the United States to de-escalate tensions in the region, and we feel that all parties speaking with each other is a positive step in that effort.US Official
A better relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran will make revival of the Iran Nuclear Agreement/JCPOA far easier. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly stated, that it should be kept in the loop. Biden Administration has been reaching out to Riyadh and other GCC countries in recent weeks. At the same time, it is believed that the US is not totally happy with the talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, since these are being held independent of Washington’s influence.
Saudi Arabia’s approach towards Middle East
Saudi Arabia has been reaching out to not just Iran, but also Qatar and Turkey to address differenced. The Turkish foreign minister was recently in Saudi Arabia too. One of the reasons cited for this is the change in tone and tenor of the US vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia under Biden. The new administration withdrew support for the Saudi effort in Yemen and did not shy away from bringing out a report, which clearly pointed to the involvement of MBS in the murder of Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
On the other hand, Iran’s outreach towards Saudi Arabia and recently towards UAE is driven by the realization that for the revival of the JCPOA, GCC countries have to be on board.
Biden faces heat on Revival of JCPOA and Israel-Hamas Conflict
While there is a churn in action as far as ties between GCC countries and Israel are concerned, it remains to be seen as to whether Israel will support the revival of the JCPOA. So far it has opposed the deal, saying that it does not address Israel’s important security concerns vis-à-vis Iran. This point has been conveyed during meetings between senior Israeli and US officials. The Biden Administration has taken a strong posture vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia but it remains to be seen if it can do the same vis-à-vis Israel. While commenting on the recent violence between Israel and Hamas, the US president has said that Israel has the right to ‘defend itself’. A White House readout of a call between Biden and Israeli PM, Benjamin Netanyahu stated:
‘US President conveyed his unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians.’A White house readout between Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu
Biden faced criticism from policymakers within his own party. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-(New York). while speaking in the House said “The president and many other figures this week stated that Israel has a right to self-defense… But do Palestinians have a right to survive?” The Republicans on the other hand blamed Biden for not being fervent in his support for Israel.
While the efforts being made by Saudi Arabia and Iran are important not just in the context of the Iran Nuclear Agreement but the overall geopolitics of the Middle East, Israel’s opposition to the JCPOA and the recent conflagration between Israel and Hamas mean that Middle East is in for turbulence, and the Biden Administration is likely to be tested.