A Saudi Arabia-Iran road map for the future

A Saudi Arabia-Iran road map for the future

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Saudi Arabia and Iran have emerged as key players in the Middle East’s war and peace equation. Five rounds of security discussions have been held between Riyadh and Tehran in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and elsewhere, but the outcomes have not lived up to expectations.
Despite the efforts of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and his government, the Saudi-Iran dialogue remains at a standstill. This stalemate is attributed to differences over numerous issues, divergent viewpoints and the fact that Iran’s negotiation strategy is complicated and slow-moving.
There are a number of roadblocks that should be removed in order to pave the way for peace. What are these roadblocks that must be removed on both sides? And how can the conditions be created to move forward from a security dialogue to a diplomatic one, with the goal of eventually reaching a political discourse? What is the most appropriate and useful negotiation trajectory that should be pursued?
These questions lead us to this article’s main point: If Iran’s leaders have the political will to strive for an acceptable level of peace, many of the other current roadblocks could be removed. In addition, once such an Iranian will is apparent, a clear, scientific and strategic approach must be adopted. This should be divided into stages, with the ultimate goal of accumulating benefits and capitalizing on opportunities.
First, it is necessary to study and analyze previous negotiating experiences — both successful and unsuccessful — in order to draw lessons and formulate guidelines for future rounds of dialogue. Following this, a number of issues should be negotiated, based on the priorities set by each of the two parties and their importance in terms of breaking the ice.
Without a doubt, the Yemeni issue is at the top of this list of subjects. If an agreement can be reached on this issue, there will be breakthroughs on the rest of the regional issues. This will provide a sufficient guarantee to restore trust in bilateral relations and a solid foundation for progress toward what resembles peaceful coexistence or, at the very least, the most basic requirements of good neighborliness.
Although the current armistice in Yemen is a golden opportunity for avoiding any plunge back into war and its tragedies, it is necessary while going through these stages that we should avoid skipping any of the essential steps and leaping to any temporary or insufficient conclusions in order to remedy the root causes of the long-standing problems.
Second, it must be established that the Iranian side has the willingness to negotiate and the desire to achieve genuine, long-term peace, rather than merely providing an empty show of reassurance for the West to make it appear as if it took the initiative and engaged in serious dialogue with the Saudis without doing anything of the sort. Experience has shown that Iran enters into negotiations for the sake of appearing to negotiate, buying time and testing opponents with haggling over concessions that never end, and that the Office of the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders have the final say on accepting the outcomes of the Saudi-Iran talks.

Once an Iranian will for peace is apparent, a clear, scientific and strategic approach must be adopted.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

Third, having completed the formation of the basic requirements for negotiations and constructed a solid foundation for their basis, I wish to present a blueprint that could serve as a road map for a fruitful future for Saudi-Iranian dialogue.
Step 1, establishing contact through Track II diplomacy. This step involves meetings between intellectuals and think tanks from both sides. This takes place to ensure that the most pressing outstanding issues can be analyzed and suitable practical solutions determined and developed, providing opportunities to present possible guarantees from both sides. It is critical that these teams include experts covering a range of disciplines, who are capable of formulating strategies related to security, political, ideological, intellectual and media issues, in addition to others. These teams must develop solutions and recommendations for all the strategic issues related to each topic, as well as a set of strategic options and alternatives.
Step 2, once these teams have completed their brainstorming and presented a set of solutions, recommendations and options, official dignitaries from both sides can continue with the dialogue in accordance with Track 1.5 diplomatic efforts.
In terms of methodology and tools, Riyadh’s deliberations on the Yemeni crisis could serve as a model of normative approximation. This step would be expected to conclude with the introduction of a strategic framework for negotiations for policymakers involved from the foreign ministries of the two countries.
A third party, whether representatives from a guarantor state or a regional or international nongovernmental organization, could be included in these two stages, with the mission of facilitating and moderating the dialogue and bringing the two sides’ viewpoints closer together.
Step 3 is that the strategic framework proposed by the Track 1.5 diplomatic teams would be studied and assessed, along with any results from the Track 2 diplomatic efforts, by the relevant officials in the two countries’ foreign ministries and other concerned entities.
Only in this step — when it happens — can we truly hope for meaningful diplomatic meetings between the representatives of the two countries to move dialogue from the technical security level to the diplomatic one. In this diplomatic track, the two parties would aim to reach an agreement on a joint strategic plan for the negotiation process. It could include quick wins with the goal of instilling trust between the two parties. If we can overcome the major obstacles and if there is a genuine desire, the dialogue can then evolve into a strategic dialogue with high expectations.
At the diplomatic level, it is necessary to end with a meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries to ratify the results and outcomes of the dialogue and approve the joint negotiation strategy after the political leaderships of both countries have accomplished it. Following this, the strategic solutions will be implemented in each of the subjects of negotiation in accordance with the political agenda agreed by both parties. This will result in political statements and media campaigns to reassure the public and partners about the results and understandings. The success in establishing trust, as well as the magnitude of the accomplishments, may encourage the exchange of visits and meetings at the level of political leaders. Although unlikely in the near term, this is possible in the medium term.
This Saudi-Iran dialogue road map can be built upon, modified as the dialogue progresses and developed to serve the interests of both parties and suit the conditions and requirements of each relevant stage. It aims to achieve regional peace based on mutual respect, noninterference in the internal affairs of countries, respect for international treaties and charters, and the principle of good neighborliness — to achieve results that serve the peoples of the two countries and their aspirations, as well as the rest of the region’s peoples.
To conclude, the Middle East has reached an unprecedented stage of crises, heightened disputes, costly options and slowing development efforts, forcing us to act — forcefully, not willingly — to support efforts to advance the region past its present state of costly disputes that squander its potential to a state of peace and beneficial partnerships for all parties.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami
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