The much-publicized kiss the new Saudi ambassador to Iran, Abdulrahman bin Garman Al Shahri, bestowed on former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani on April 22, and the recent Saudi diplomatic outreach to Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have set off speculation about a potential thaw in the two countries’ icy relations. But the gestures should not be viewed as a Saudi policy reorientation toward what Riyadh still views as a revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran. The Saudis appear to be changing their tactics, probably at the behest of the U.S., but not their regional objectives of rolling back Iranian involvement in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
Reports suggest the U.S. may be behind the reluctant efforts of both Iran and Saudi Arabia to contain their rivalry, which is destabilizing the region. Journalist Ali Hashem has reported that backchannel contacts, brokered by Oman, between the Saudis and Iranians led to direct talks, and that Rafsanjani has Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s blessing to pursue a plan to reduce tension with the Saudis. Whatever the case, while there may be room for compromise between Iran and Saudi Arabia regarding conflicting interests in Lebanon and Bahrain, resolving their differences in Syria, Iraq and Yemen will be a harder nut to crack due to the intensity of the Sunni-Shiite violence in those local conflicts.
Sensing that the U.S. may be moving toward a detente with Iran, the Saudis may be trying to hedge their bets and defuse what has taken on the dimensions of a regional confrontation with the Islamic Republic. This would follow an established pattern. Since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Saudi outreach to Iran has ebbed and flowed based on Saudi perceptions of U.S. resolve in the region. Dating back further, following the 1990-1991 Gulf War, all of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states relied on bilateral U.S. security guarantees as part of the U.S. policy of “dual containment” directed against Iraq and Iran. Now that the U.S. may be ending more than 35 years of confrontation with Iran, Saudi Arabia, along with the rest of the Gulf region, is being forced to reassess its own regional security interests, particularly with the Syrian civil war generating immense pressure on the internal cohesion of Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.