International Affairs

Saudis, Iranians hint at thawing hostile relationship

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While Washington is preoccupied with political transition, a thawing of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia might be underway. Iranian President Rouhani visited Kuwait and Oman last week in an effort to soothe tense Gulf-Iranian relations amid the ongoing conflict in Yemen.

Rouhani called for a truce in the Yemen conflict in an apparent gesture toward Saudi Arabia and a senior Iranian official called on Gulf States not to respond in kind: “This regional initiative is an opportunity that our regional friends should seize. Opportunity passes like a cloud. Take advantage of the good opportunity,” Hamid Aboutalebi, the Iranian president’s deputy chief of staff tweeted on Tuesday.

{mosads}Rouhani said establishing a ceasefire and “holding Yemeni-Yemeni political talks” were necessary to “help resolve the problems of the Yemeni people.” He made the comments on a one-day visit to Oman and Kuwait — his first trip to the Gulf since he took office in 2013.


That is not the only indication that Iran and Saudi Arabia are trying to establish a more lasting regional modus operandi. It appears something has been brewing for some time. Perhaps the first indication of a thawing of relations occurred late last year when Saudi Arabia led an effort by OPEC and non-OPEC nations to cut oil production but allowed Iran — fresh off nuclear-related sanctions — to abstain.

An Iranian delegation also visited Saudi Arabia last week for series of talks on the possible participation of 64,000 Iranian pilgrims in the upcoming annual Muslim pilgrimage, the Hajj, which Iran boycotted last year.

A year ago, relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran reached an unprecedented level of tension and hostility. Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic relations with Iran in the wake of attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, which occurred after the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Saudi Arabian Shi’ite.

The hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia is rooted in geopolitical and religious-ideological disputes and is a significant component of contemporary Middle Eastern geopolitics. The competition for influence between the two countries is expressed mainly in various fronts through allies and proxies.

A series of regional and global changes are influencing Saudi Arabia and Iran to consider beginning a dialogue. Saudi Arabia apparently is concerned about the forces in Iraq and Syria that are loyal to Iran. Riyadh is also troubled by Tehran’s achievements in the Lebanese political arena.

Further, Saudi Arabia’s inability to achieve its goals in Yemen after almost two years of fighting is driving its decision-making. Above all else, the Saudis anticipate arrangements in Syria, this time perhaps under American-Russian sponsorship, that will perpetuate Iran’s gain in the theater.

In light of the Syrian government’s achievements against the rebels, Saudi Arabia’s so-called Sunni allies — Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan — are hedging, recalculating their Syria policies and moving away from anti-Assad rhetoric. 

The Iranians are mainly concerned with a change in U.S. policy following the election of President Trump. The president’s anti-Iranian attitude dovetails with Saudi Arabia’s views. Also, the U.S. and Russia might come to understandings vis-à-vis Syria without taking Iranian interest into consideration.

Under these circumstances, Tehran is likely to believe that a thaw in the level of mutual hostility will help reduce Saudi Arabia’s interest in escalating the tension, and will also influence the Trump administration.

The efforts to reduce tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia reflect an attempt by the ideological and geostrategic rivals to maintain open channels of communication with the hope of alleviating tensions. The changing political landscape is forcing them to work together.

One must lower his or her expectations. It remains difficult to see how those regional rivalries and persistent sectarian divisions could ever be bridged with substantive agreements.

The chances of finding a formula for any major regional issue that would prove satisfactory to both sides are still slim. As a result, it may be more likely that, at least for the time being, rhetoric describing “mutual interests,” “regional cooperation” and “Muslim unity” will force hostilities back behind the scenes. 


Yoel Guzansky is a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and the Israel Institute.​

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

Tags Arab League–Iran relations Geography of Asia International relations Iran–Saudi Arabia proxy conflict Iran–Saudi Arabia relations Islam Saudi Arabia Shia–Sunni relations

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