Fareed Marjaee | Former member of the executive committee of the New Democratic Party of Toronto, writer and commentator
The U.S. embargo and the biting sanctions against Iran have created severe economic hardships for the country. There is always a concern that such economic hardship may lead to popular unrest. Therefore, Iranian leaders would welcome a deescalation on different fronts.
In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is one of the few princes who did not pursue a higher education abroad. That is why most likely his perspective has been shaped only through the authoritarian Saudi domestic prism. The issue with absolutist rulers is that they never have to face pushback at home, hence don’t develop a good sense for negotiations. But the kingdom’s strategic initiatives have not led to victory. Saudi policies in Yemen, Syria, and Qatar, plus the current low price of oil, not to mention the bombshell that was Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination, may have changed minds in Riyadh.
It is very likely that Iran and Saudi Arabia will begin a process of dialogue that may lead to some form of detente and a deescalation of the Yemen conflict. However, in-depth negotiations that would lead to a comprehensive rapprochement will be challenging. Ultimately, any Saudi initiative cannot take place in isolation of the overall U.S. regional policy architecture, namely the alliance between certain Arab states, Israel, and the Trump administration that has undermined the nuclear agreement with Iran. At the same time, it is unlikely that Iran will change its long-held strategic approach toward total American and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East.
Fatiha Dazi-Heni | Senior researcher on Arabian Peninsula and Gulf issues at the Institute for Strategic Research of the Ecole Militaire (IRSEM), Paris, assistant professor at Sciences Po Lille
Tensions between Iran and Riyadh have risen dramatically in recent months. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s assertive regional policy is now under high scrutiny in the Saudi Royal Court. In addition to the failed war in Yemen, the cordial alliance between Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, has had a high cost in terms of the rift with Qatar that has divided the Gulf Cooperation Council and heightened strains with Iran. All this has played against Saudi interests.
The attack of September 14 against vital Saudi oil installations appeared to target a strategic priority for Mohammed bin Salman, namely the IPO of Aramco. The absence of a U.S. military response to the attack, likely orchestrated by Iran, could result in a new security approach in the Gulf. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran need to urgently agree, with the help of political actors other than Washington, to measures that would reduce the possibility of aggressive actions. With Russian President Vladimir Putin scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia in mid-October, Russia could help in this regard, against the more antagonist U.S. approach to Iran.
Thomas W. Lippman | Author and former journalist, author of Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally
A new conventional wisdom about tensions in the Gulf has suddenly developed. It says that Saudi Arabia, frightened by the recent attacks against its oil facilities, disappointed by President Donald Trump’s response, and weakened by the United Arab Emirates’ drawdown in Yemen, and Iran, crippled by sanctions, are groping for a formula that would lead to a warming of their relations.
Maybe—third countries have said they have been asked to help—but don’t hold your breath. The two countries have irreconcilable visions of the Middle East’s future. Neither wants all-out war, because neither could win. However, that does not mean that they can reach an accommodation over what divides them—Yemen, Iran’s support for trouble-making regional proxies, Iran’s nuclear program, and many other issues. Moreover, neither side believes the other’s regime is legitimate, which makes negotiating all the more difficult. Besides, the Iranians who do international negotiating, President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, do not have decisionmaking power.
Firas Maksad | Adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs
Saudi Arabia and Iran are talking, at least according to some well-placed sources in Washington. If true, this should not come as a surprise in light of the parameters set by the current U.S. policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran and the many recent attacks on oil infrastructure in the Gulf region, for which Iran is widely believed to be responsible. By continuously warning Tehran that attacks on U.S. personnel or interests will be met with a harsh response, the Trump administration has been implicitly messaging that attacking Washington’s Arab Gulf allies is fair game. The lack of a U.S. military reaction, particularly after the targeting of Saudi oil facilities a few weeks ago, only reinforced this vulnerability. Given the shortcomings of the current U.S. policy, which reflect a president who wants to confront Iran but not risk war, American officials understand the need that their Arab Gulf allies might feel to try to limit their exposure. However, any such Saudi-Iranian backchannel will likely be limited, would not include Yemen, and would take place in coordination with Washington.
Marc Lynch | Nonresident senior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program
Recent reports that Saudi Arabia has reached out to Iran for quiet discussions about deescalating regional tensions represent a rare moment of common sense. However, there is little reason to believe that those talks would prove fruitful anytime soon. There are good reasons for such talks. Iran has long sought such engagement. For Saudi Arabia, the recent military escalation in the Gulf, and the limited U.S. response, has driven home the risks of endless confrontation. While the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has inflicted serious economic damage on Iran, it is increasingly clear that it has failed to achieve strategic objectives. Riyadh may as well be staring down the prospect of a post-Trump future that may arrive sooner than expected, in which a broad spectrum of U.S. opinion remains deeply angry over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi military campaign in Yemen.
But for all the logic of a rapprochement, it will be difficult to achieve much more than perhaps some deconfliction and limited restraint. The last decade unleashed a toxic brew of state failure, sectarianism, proxy warfare, and unpredictability that defy any actor’s ability to control events. Confronting Iran across the region is a key part of the extreme nationalism that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has mobilized to consolidate his power internally, while the shredding of the nuclear deal with Iran and the imposition of U.S. sanctions have allowed Iran’s conservatives to enjoy greater support than they have in years. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have good internal reasons to prefer confrontation over rapprochement—as long as a confrontation can be kept within limits. Quietly negotiating those limits to avoid an escalation that could prove disastrous for both may be the best that talks can accomplish for now.