Saudi-Iranian rapprochement? The incentives and the obstacles

By F. Gregory Gause, III University of Vermont

* This memo was prepared for the “Visions of Gulf Security” workshop, March 9, 2014.

Is it at all realistic to think about the possibility of a rapprochement in the most serious Middle East regional rivalry today? Saudi Arabia and Iran are, in many ways, the drivers of the new Middle East cold war. They have contested for influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and now Syria (and, to a lesser extent, Yemen and the smaller Gulf states). They are the leading powers on each side of the sectarian divide that helps to fuel many of the region’s conflicts. Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that the intensity of their confrontation is inevitable. As recently as the early 2000s their bilateral relationship was not nearly as conflictual, as both Tehran and Riyadh pursued more normal diplomatic relations with each other even as they jostled for influence in the region. Recent domestic trends hold out the prospect for a reassessment of each country’s regional foreign policy, in ways that could lead them to explore a return to that earlier period of subdued rather than open conflict. The obstacles to rapprochement are real. Domestic actors in both countries would stand against a lowering of the region’s sectarian temperature. The structural reality of a number of civil conflicts in weak Arab states, where the contesting parties seek out the aid of Tehran and Riyadh, makes the kind of mutual forbearance such a rapprochement would require more difficult to achieve. Despite these obstacles, it is not impossible to imagine movement toward a more normal relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the coming years.

An Impossible Scenario?

There are numerous reasons why Saudi-Iranian relations should be conflictual. Since the Iranian Revolution, they have represented two opposite poles of Islamist politics – a revolutionary republic versus a conservative monarchy, each claiming that it speaks most legitimately for “Islam” in the political sphere. The sectarian Sunni-Shiite divide, even sharper given Wahhabism’s virulent anti-Shiite position, simply exacerbates that profound ideological conflict. Add on to this a natural geopolitical rivalry in the Gulf and somewhat different interests on oil questions, and you have the makings of a tense bilateral relationship.

But the level of that tension has risen and fallen over time. The decade of the 1980s was characterized by open conflict. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini publicly characterized monarchy as an un-Islamic form of government.[1] The revolutionary regime actively attempted to spread the Islamic revolution into the Arab world while Saudi Arabia helped to fund Iraq’s war against Iran. The two countries even briefly confronted each other militarily, with Saudi jet fighters shooting down two Iranian jets in 1984. In 1987 Saudi security forces fought Iranian pilgrims during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, resulting in the deaths of 275 Iranians and 87 Saudis.[2]

The death of Khomeini and the end of the Iran-Iraq War led to a cooling of the bilateral temperature. Iran’s two subsequent presidents, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, emphasized that they wanted normal diplomatic relations with Riyadh and toned down the “revolutionary export” element of Iranian foreign policy.[3] There were other actors in Iran, like the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), that did not give up on the export of revolution, but the Iranian government was looking to turn a new page.[4] Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait soured the Saudis on their alliance with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and developments in the world oil market in the late 1990s emphasized to Riyadh the necessity of being able to deal in a businesslike manner with Tehran.[5] Even after the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there were indications that the two sides could maintain a normal relationship. The Saudis hosted Ahmadinejad in Riyadh in April 2007 as the two countries worked together in early 2007 to calm relations between their clients in Lebanon.[6] In all, the bilateral relationship during this period was hardly chummy, but it was not as poisonous as it had been before or has become now.

So the recent past tells us that it is not impossible to imagine a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. This would not be an alliance. The two sides have too many contrary interests. It would not even be the shotgun marriage that characterized relations during the time of the Shah, when Cold War dynamics and a common antipathy toward leftist Arab nationalism brought Riyadh and Tehran together. A rapprochement would simply be an agreement to lower the temperature of their mutual condemnations and to act with self-restraint in order to limit the regional spillover consequences of the Syrian and Iraqi domestic conflicts.

Domestic Trends and the Possibility of Rapprochement

On the Iranian side, the election of Hassan Rouhani to the presidency vastly increases the chances of a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. Rouhani’s bumptious predecessor rubbed the Saudis the wrong way on a number of levels, not least of which was his return to the revolutionary rhetoric of the 1980s and his close ties to the IRGC. Iran’s success at beating the Saudis in the regional influence game in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine during Ahmadinejad’s tenure made him even harder for the Saudis to stomach. Rouhani represents a return, or at least the possibility of a return, to the Rafsanjani-Khatami regional foreign policy line that made normal relations with Riyadh an Iranian diplomatic priority. He entered office calling Saudi Arabia “a friend and a brother,” saying that improvement of relations with Gulf neighbors was a top priority of his foreign policy. In the longer term, Rouhani’s election opens up the possibility of an Iranian foreign policy that is more focused on domestic economic development and reintegration into the world economy, and less willing to commit Iranian resources to the Arab world. That is not an immediate prospect, given the uncertainty of regional politics and the Iranian domestic scene. But Rouhani’s desire to return to a more normal bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia is clear.

On the Saudi side, the domestic trends are not as clear. However, the apparent change at the top on Syrian policy is an indicator that Riyadh is increasingly worried about the domestic political consequences of continued regional sectarian conflict. Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, the interior minister who made his name by leading the campaign against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Saudi Arabia itself in the mid-2000s, now seems to be in control of the Syria file. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who ran the file over the past two years, promoted an aggressive policy of Saudi support for Syrian fighters, including Salafi jihadist groups not formally affiliated with al Qaeda. That Prince Mohammad now seems to be in control of the Syria file is an indication that Riyadh might (and I stress, might) be thinking about scaling down its support for the rebels there. There are other straws in the Saudi wind that indicate Riyadh might be refocusing on the potential domestic blow-back of continued fighting in Syria: The kingdom recently adopted a law with harsh penalties for Saudis joining foreign wars, declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and is in the midst of pressuring Qatar to reduce its support for the Brotherhood regionally. To the extent that Riyadh is concentrating more on enemies from within the Sunni world, it will be more willing to de-emphasize the confrontation with Iran.

These domestic political trends are not definitive, but they indicate that there is a chance that in both Tehran and Riyadh a greater focus on the negative domestic consequences of ambitious regional policies might lead to a willingness on both sides to consider less confrontational policies. Such a mutual willingness is a precondition to a sustainable rapprochement. There are some rumors that both sides are currently exploring this possibility.

Obstacles to Rapprochement

On each side there are domestic political obstacles to a rapprochement. In Iran, the IRGC is committed to maintaining Iran’s geopolitical gains in the region, including supporting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It is also more committed to both the rhetoric and the infrastructure of revolutionary export. To the extent that the IRGC maintains its influence in Iranian foreign policy, it will be more difficult to achieve a new understanding with Saudi Arabia. It is unclear where the Supreme Leader would come down on a confrontation between Rouhani and the IRGC on the issue of a less ambitious Iranian regional policy.

Factionalism is less important in Saudi foreign policy than sclerosis and leadership uncertainty. With the senior leadership in the country so old and succession up in the air, it is possible that Riyadh will be unable to respond positively to signals of Iranian moderation. It remains to be seen whether Prince Mohammad bin Nayef’s apparent control of the Syrian file signals a growing role for him in Saudi foreign policy more generally, or not. Saudi public opinion is not particularly important in the formation of the country’s foreign policy, but the Syrian civil war has evoked strong public feelings of support for the rebels. In a situation of leadership uncertainty, the public opinion factor could be a disincentive for any senior al-Saud figure to be seen as advocating a softer line toward Iran.

Another significant obstacle to a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement is the weakness or collapse of state authority in so many Arab states. The political vacuums in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq invite regional intervention. When the Saudis and the Iranians last enjoyed a period of relatively decent relations, the regional map was more stable – Saddam was weakened but still in power in Baghdad and Syria was a player, not a playing field, in regional politics. There were not as many opportunities to extend a state’s regional influence. Even if both the Saudi and Iranian leaderships are driven simply by defensive motivations, it will be difficult for them to stay out of the civil conflicts that have erupted all over the eastern Arab world. This new structural factor in Middle East international politics, which predates the Arab Spring but which has been exacerbated by it, makes the mutual restraint necessary for a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement harder to achieve.

Conclusion: Structure v. Agency

The possibility of a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement depends largely on the political will of leaders on both sides. The structure of regional politics, with civil conflicts engulfing a large number of states in the eastern Arab world, would seem to push the two countries into further conflicts. In each case, elements of domestic politics also work against the possibility that the political will to improve relations can be summoned. In Iran, it is the power of a particular player in the domestic political game, the IRGC, which has ideological and organizational interests in an aggressive regional policy. In Saudi Arabia, it is an aging leadership and the uncertainty of succession politics that militates against decisive political action. It will take concerted actions by leaders who grasp power and choose to follow a more moderate regional foreign policy course to overcome these structural impediments, if there is to be a chance for a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement to occur. There are signs that elements of both leaderships would prefer a less conflictual region and a better bilateral relationship. Whether they have the power to take the steps necessary to achieve those goals is an open question.

The United States would certainly benefit from a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, but it must tread lightly on this issue. Saudi Arabia already fears that the current improvement in Iranian-U.S. relations – as tentative as it is – could lead Washington to ignore Saudi interests in its desire to get a deal with Tehran. Any encouragement from Washington that the Saudis open up to Iran would be seen as part of a U.S. move toward Iran and would be greeted with great suspicion. Better that the Obama Administration let the domestic factors in both countries pushing toward better relations work themselves out without an American nudge.

F. Gregory Gause, III is a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

[1] “Islam proclaims monarchy and hereditary succession wrong and invalid” (Ruhollah Khomeini, “Islamic Government,” in Khomeini, Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations, trans. and ann. by Hamid Algar (London: KPI, 1985), p. 31.

[2] On relations in the 1980s, see Henner Furtig, Iran’s Rivalry with Saudi Arabia Between the Gulf Wars, (Reading: Ithaca Press, 2002); Ray Takeyh, Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), Chapters 1, 4; F. Gregory Gause, III, The International Relations of the Persian Gulf, (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2010), Chapter 3.

[3] Takeyh, Guardians of the Revolution, Chapters 5, 6, and 8.

[4] The United States contends that Iran was responsible for the bombing of the Khobar Towers apartment complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia in 1996, which killed 19 U.S. military personnel and wounded over 300 Americans, Saudis, and third country nationals. Gause, The International Relations of the Persian Gulf, p. 128-29.

[5] Gause, The International Relations of the Persian Gulf, Chapter 4.

[6] Michael Slackman, “U.S. Ally and Foe are Trying to Avert War in Lebanon,” New York Times, January 30, 2007.

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