Another Saudi U-Turn

After clearly trying to ease tensions with Tehran, why has Riyadh suddenly changed course again?

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By Abdel Bari Atwan

Saudi Arabia’s angry denial that it is interested in any kind of reconciliation with Iran has come as something of a shock. An official statement on Thursday insisted that the kingdom ‘has not asked for any form of mediation with Iran, and reports circulating to that effect are false; Saudi Arabia adheres to its position of rejecting any rapprochement with the Iranian regime that spreads terrorism and extremism in the region’.

This was unexpected. It represents a sharp change in Riyadh’s position, shattering all the optimistic theories that anticipated an easing of tensions, or a truce at least, between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

What was it that so infuriated the Saudi leadership and prompted it to issue this ‘escalatory’ statement? It had only recently extended a remarkably warm welcome to a number of Iraqi Shiite leaders and politicians, including some close to Iran who fought under the umbrella of Gen. Qasem Soleimani’s Iranian Revolutionary Guard, — including Iraqi Interior Minister Qasem al-Aaraji, who was received by the kingdom as an honoured guest on 18 July and granted a friendly meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.

Clear signs

The apparent improvement in Saudi-Iranian relations over the past three months had been striking and rapid. It raised many eyebrows and seemed to signal a truce between the two sides following Muhammad Bin-Salman’s fierce televised attack on Iran in May in which. He said at the time that ‘dialogue with Iran is impossible’, accused it pursuing apocalyptic religious ideas and seeking to  conquer the Muslim holy sites in Saudi Arabia, and vowed to ‘take the battle deep inside’ Iran itself.

Since then, there had been unmistakeable evidence of a rapprochement.

First, Tehran lifted its ban on Iranian pilgrims performing the Hajj duty and the Saudi authorities addressed most of its concerns about the issue with unprecedented flexibility. The Saudi minister in charge of the Hajj personally headed the delegation that greeted the first batch of arriving Iranian pilgrims.

Secondly, the warm and unexpected handshake and embrace between Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif during the Organization of Islamic Cooperation conference on Jerusalem in Istanbul last month. The Iranian media stressed that it was the Saudi minister who initiated the handshake.

Third, ten Iranian diplomats were allowed to set up offices in three Saudi cities to provide services to their country’s pilgrims, despite the fact that diplomatic relations have been severed and all embassies and consulates closed in the two countries since the Saudi embassy in Tehran was torched by protestors in 2015.

Fourth, the ‘Ar’ar border crossing between Iraq and Saudi Arabia was reopened for the first time in more than twenty years.

Fifth, an anti-Iranian and anti-Shia Tweet by the controversial former Saudi ambassador to Iraq, Thamer as-Sabhan — in which he fiercely attacked the late Ayatollah Khomeini and Shia beliefs – was deleted within 24 hour of him posting it on 13 July. Sabhan had been declared persona non grata in Baghdad because of his ‘sectarian’ interventions in Iraq’s domestic affairs.

To this can be added Saudi Arabia’s sudden outreach to Iraqi Shia Arab leaders, most notably the warm welcome it accorded to the previously reviled Muqtada as-Sadr. It also announced it would be opening a Saudi consulate in Najaf, and there was talk of a joint Saudi-Emirati endeavour to encourage the revival of Iraq’s Arab identity in order to weaken Iranian influence.

Change of mind

So what happened to cause this Saudi U-turn that has dispelled all hopes of a Saudi-Iranian reconciliation that would ease tensions between the two sides and lead to understandings over such heated and disputed issues as the Yemeni and Syrian crises? There may be a number of reasons for this.

Saudi Arabia, which is notoriously secretive and likes to operate in the shadows, may have been angered by Aaraji’s public announcement that it had asked Iraqi Premier Haidar al-Abadi to launch a mediation effort between it and Iran. Aaraji made the disclosure at a joint press conference with his Iranian counterpart, which made Saudi Arabia appear as the weaker or supplicant party.

Iran, too may have been angered by Saudi Arabia’s outreach to Iraqi Shiite leaders who are critical of it, its wooing of Sadr, and its efforts to dilute Iranian influence by building an ‘Arab front’ comprising Shia and Sunni politicians. Tehran may have prompted Aaraji to go public about the secret Saudi wish for a rapprochement.

In addition, the United State, which is believed to have proposed that the Saudis open up to Iraqi Shia leaders as a means of countering Iranian influence, may have opted to put the brakes on the Saudi attempt at a rapprochement with Iran. This is likely, given the additional US sanctions that have been imposed on Iran and renewed charges that it supports terrorism.

Moreover, these days in particular, Muhammad bin Salman views most issues, including relations with other states, from the perspective of his vendetta against Qatar. He has undoubtedly been angered by the recent dramatic improvement in relations between Tehran and Doha, with Iran opening up its ports for the transit of goods to Qatar, thereby breaking the Saudi-led blockade of the country. Moreover, with the kingdom and its allies berating Qatar for being too close to Iran, it cannot be seen to be doing the same itself.

Back to escalation

All this leads to the conclusion that the conflict between the two countries is liable to escalate once more on a number of fronts, most prominently in Iraq where Iran will not tolerate any Saudi scheme to undercut its influence.

The conflicts in Yemen and Syria will also be impacted by revived Iranian-Saudi rivalry.

Within Iraq, Aaraji’s very brief and humiliating retraction of his remarks about the Saudis wanting Iraqi mediation with Tehran, possibly made at Abadi’s behest,  is a small reflection of deep divisions within Iraq’s ruling elite circles that may be aggravated in the coming phase.

This renewed falling-out between Iran and Saudi Arabia after a period of relative calm may well also affect the upcoming the Hajj season in one way or another. There has already been a portent of this in Saudi Arabia’s announcement that Iranian pilgrims will not be allowed to visit the graves of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions on al-Buqai’, and its denial that any such permission was ever promised.

Sadly, the coming days will be rife with tension. It can only be hoped that this year’s Hajj season will pass without trouble, though there is reason to doubt that.