Early this year, months before Iran held its presidential elections, significant security talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia were held in Baghdad. Security and military officials from both countries reportedly met at least three times. Little is known about the actual substance of the talks, other than that they involved Yemen-related affairs. But the composition of the delegations on each side suggests these talks were genuine and substantive.
While it is inaccurate to view Iranian-Saudi tension as the sole driver of all armed conflict in the Middle East, peace talks between the two could go a long way toward solving some of the most pressing regional issues such as the war in Yemen, the situations in Syria and Iraq as well as the worsening crisis in Lebanon. All expectations are that meetings will resume on this newly established track shortly after Eid al-Adha in late July.
Observers in the European policy community suggest that Saudi Arabia has a clear interest in entering these talks, as they see the kingdom being stuck in Yemen. These same observers question Iran’s incentives for actually making a deal. But Iran, too, has a lot to gain from these talks.
First, on the Yemen file: Tehran is eyeing two political wins. Iran is increasingly viewed by Saudi Arabia as an important player with a significant role to play in ending the war, at least the geopolitical dimensions of it. For years, Saudi Arabia had rejected any role for Iran. Indeed, Riyadh launched its military intervention in Yemen in 2015 largely out of fear that Tehran might gain a foothold on its southern border. That Saudi perceptions are changing is a win for Iran. Iran would also almost certainly welcome Saudi Arabia’s willingness to grant a share of political power to the Houthis in a reconstituted Yemen. Seeing their allies being elevated from a rebel group to an acknowledged political actor would also be considered a “win” in Tehran. Although Yemen has never been of inherent value to Iran, it is in Yemen that Iran has improved its geopolitical position in the Arabian Peninsula toward Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as vis-à-vis the United States. In the future, Washington will have to worry about a new front from which Iran could threaten its regional allies in times of increasing US-Iran tensions.
Second, initial reports of Saudi intelligence chief Khalid al-Humaidan’s trip to Syria suggested that a gradual rehabilitation process of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the reintegration of Syria into the Arab League could be in the making. Iran would welcome such a step. After all, this would be a clear sign that Saudi Arabia is willing to accept the Assad-led political order of Syria. This shift and potential rehabilitation process of Syria as an Arab nation mirrors Saudi Arabia’s shift towards diplomatic re-engagement of Iraq back in 2016 after cutting diplomatic relations in 1991. In similar fashion, Iranian officials and stakeholders welcomed the opening toward Baghdad because it illustrated the political will on Riyadh’s part to accept the post-Saddam order in Iraq and engage with a political establishment perceived as Tehran-leaning.
Third, while regional security talks in Baghdad are kept separate from nuclear talks in Vienna, these two channels certainly feed into each other. Iran had insisted on a moratorium on regional issues when addressing the nuclear dossier, but it has always been willing to speak about regional affairs with regional actors. And the purely regional nature of the Baghdad talks will help Iran’s position in nuclear negotiations with the P4+1 (and in its jockeying with the US specifically) because, ideally, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will be less keen to exert pressure on the JCPOA-related talks, allowing for the nuclear deal to be restored.
Fourth, with trade with Iran being increasingly criminalized under an encompassing US sanctions regime, exploring new trade avenues in its immediate neighborhood is of significant importance to Iran. Therefore, a gradual re-engagement with Saudi Arabia and the UAE may broaden Iran’s options for new trade routes. This is of value to Iran even if sanctions were to be lifted as part of a restoration of the JCPOA. After all, for Iran it is a key strategic goal to minimize to the extent possible the risks of being put back into the very same sanctions regime with a new government in Washington from 2024 onward. In other words, while re-entering the JCPOA is the fastest path toward the lifting of sanctions, improving regional ties can be a promising path toward neutralizing sanctions, as new options for sanctions circumvention can be explored.
Fifth, when engaging Saudi Arabia, Iran will probably also seek to further discourage the kingdom from formally normalizing ties with Israel. In Iran, the Abraham Accords had been discussed as a potential geostrategic threat, with Israeli intelligence power and potential operational capacities coming closer to Iranian territory. Tehran likely seeks to build on the perceived reluctance within the Saudi leadership, and to use the sentiments generated after the latest escalation in Gaza and the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah to promote the idea of regional arrangements that exclude Israel.
Finally, it is important to bear in mind that Iran will continue to view the region in light of its conflict with the US. The higher the tension with the US, the more Iran will be inclined to advance its defense capabilities – whether through asymmetric warfare (i.e. investing in allies on the ground, such as militant non-state and hybrid groups) or deterrence (i.e. its ballistic missile program). Should the JCPOA be restored, and the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign of the US finally come to an end with sanctions lifted, Iran will be much more willing to engage in reconciliatory talks with regional rivals because it will feel much less threatened by the US.
The officials involved in the Baghdad talks will continue to be around when the new government in Tehran, led by President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, is formed. There is no reason to assume Raisi and his team will change anything in the approach adopted so far in the talks. When it comes to regional security affairs, the Supreme National Security Council is the decisive body shaping security policies – and Raisi has been a member of this body since 2019 as head of the Judiciary and will soon preside over the body as the incoming president.
During his first press conference after the election, Raisi emphasized that regional countries will be a key priority, and that he sees “no obstacles” in restoring diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia. These signals had been sent before, but they are now being sent in conjunction with a serious dialogue track that has been set up and can hopefully be consolidated. The manifold incentives for Iran outlined above suggest that Tehran is interested in working in this direction.
This commentary is part of a series of publications by the Sana’a Center examining the roles of state and non-state foreign actors in Yemen.