The two sides of Iran’s diplomacy
There was a global sigh of relief when Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed in Beijing on March 10 to restore diplomatic ties after seven years of rupture. They also signaled a desire for dialogue and reconciliation.
However, while Saudi Arabia has been genuinely trying to translate the Beijing understandings into a real movement toward peace and reconciliation, the signals from Tehran and especially its allies in the region have been mixed, if not confusing.
Since the March meeting, Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers met in April in Beijing. The Saudi foreign minister visited Tehran in June, and in August Iran’s foreign minister visited Saudi Arabia and met the crown prince. The Saudi ambassador’s arrival in Tehran on Sept. 5 was a concrete sign of the new arrangement, especially as he effused about a new dawn in the relationship between the two countries. On Sept. 19 it was revealed that Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi had sent two letters to King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in another sign of improved relations.
The official statements issued by both sides following these events have accentuated the positive and indicated that things were moving in the right direction. However, in terms of actions taken by the two sides, they appear to diverge.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia sent its ambassador to Sanaa in April to mediate between the Iran-affiliated Houthis and the internationally recognized government. While there was no public breakthrough after several days of intensive discussions, the talks were described as positive. Between Sept. 14 and 18, Riyadh hosted a Houthi delegation led by top negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam, to resume discussions aimed at reaching a “roadmap” to support the path to peace in Yemen. While this round was also inconclusive, participants were upbeat, describing it as positive.
In May, Saudi Arabia hosted the Arab League summit that restored Syria’s standing in the organization and co-led efforts to address the Syrian crisis, cooperatively with the Syrian government, a close ally of Iran.
Saudi Arabia continued its efforts to support Iraq’s reintegration with the GCC and the rest of the Arab World. In June, the GCC-Iraq electric grid connection was launched from Dammam in a festive occasion to celebrate closer ties between Iraq and GCC member states, led by Saudi Arabia. The two sides had already agreed on an ambitious integration program that includes political and security dialogue, trade and investment cooperation, and people-to-people re-engagement.
In addition to diplomatic overtures and confidence building measures with Iran and its regional allies, Saudi Arabia has embarked on an ambitious diplomatic campaign on several other fronts to deal with pressing issues. Saudi officials have been trying to mediate between Russia and Ukraine to reach a ceasefire, embark on a political solution to the conflict, and exchange prisoners and detainees. They have also put their weight behind efforts to resume grain exports from Ukraine and Russia.
It is likely that there are in Iran and in the movements it supports throughout the region unruly elements who are not buying into the new reconciliation and seek to undermine it.
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
In Sudan, Saudi Arabia, joined by the US, is mediating between the warring parties. The Jeddah Process is to date the most promising platform to end the Sudan violence or at least de-escalate and establish humanitarian corridors while negotiations on a political solution are taking place. Last week in New York, Saudi Arabia organized an event to energize a humanitarian response plan for Sudan.
Even more ambitious, Saudi Arabia is leading a sustained effort to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process. Joined by the Arab League and the EU, the Kingdom is seeking, in cooperation with Egypt and Jordan too, to breathe life into that seemingly impossible task. On Sept. 18, Saudi Arabia convened Peace Day, an event in New York at the UN General Assembly. About 50 foreign ministers from around the world took part. The aim was to produce a “Peace Supporting Package” that will maximize peace dividends for the Palestinians and Israelis if they reach a peace agreement.
However, Iran does not seem to be quite so fully behind the new policy. Some observers thought it was disconcerting that Iran’s national security adviser Ali Shamkhani was dismissed in May, just two months after he signed the deal with his Saudi counterpart to restore diplomatic ties. More seriously, there was no perceptible effort by Iran to defuse regional crises in which Tehran had considerable influence. In some cases there has been backsliding.
In Yemen, despite the positive atmosphere of recent talks, rhetoric from key Houthi leaders has remained unchanged. While the truce is generally holding, ceasefire violations have increased. On Sept. 25, a Houthi drone attack on the Saudi border with Yemen killed three servicemen from Bahrain. A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition said there had been other recent attacks in the border area, including an attack on a power station and another on a police station.
In Iraq, some politicians, believed to be allied with Iran, have started stirring conflict by repeating old false claims about Kuwait and calling for ending a 2012 maritime boundary treaty, despite the fact that it wasratified by both countries in 2013 and deposited with the UN since 2015, and is recognized by the international community. Some Iranians have even made claims on the Saudi-Kuwait-owned Durra gas field.
These steps, taken since the historic agreement in March to restore diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia, do not contribute to confidence building but serve to sow doubt and suspicion.
The two sides of the coin can be seen in Raisi’s speech at the UN on Sept. 19. He praised the diplomatic efforts in the region and gave a nod to peace and dialogue with neighbors, but his passionate eulogy of the deceased Revolutionary Guard warlord Qassem Suleimani was shocking. More troubling was his claim that the “resistance” of the people of Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria had “borne fruit.” These countries have in fact fared badly as a result of Iran’s meddling, politically, socially, economically and in security: the only win here was Tehran’s success in turning them into instruments for destabilization.
Some have accused Tehran of Janus-like duplicity. It is more likely, however, that there are in Iran and in the movements it supports throughout the region unruly elements who are not buying into the new reconciliation and seek to undermine it. Iranian leaders need to speak out and call out those provocateurs who are trying to derail Saudi-Iran diplomatic efforts.
• Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily represent the GCC. X: @abuhamad1