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Iran-Saudi Rivalry
Is Saudi Arabia Offering an Olive Branch to Iran?

Saudi Arabia must be concerned.

Iran, the Saudis’ big rival for power in the Gulf, is developing a better—though not by any means good—relationship with the U.S., and it may look like trouble to the Kingdom. Only a few short years ago, U.S. hackers used the Stuxnet virus to destroy Iranian centrifuges, whereas we now engage Iran in diplomatic talks in hopes that it will rein in its nuclear program willingly.

That is why it’s notable that Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal invited his Iranian counterpart to talks in Riyadh last month, saying: “Any time that [Iranian foreign minister Zarif] sees fit to come, we are willing to receive him. Iran is a neighbour, we have relations with them and we will negotiate with them, we will talk with them.” In addition, diplomatic exchanges between the countries have been slightly warmer and more frequent, even though the religious and historical division between the two nations remains stark. FT reports:

Iran has had contacts with several of Riyadh’s Gulf allies; the emir of Kuwait was in Tehran this month. Saudis and Iranians stood back and allowed their allies in Lebanon to form a coalition government after an 11-month hiatus. And Prince Bandar, the Saudis’ adventurist point-man on Syria policy, looks to have been shunted aside.

Why might this be? The Saudis know that if Tehran strikes a deal on nukes with Washington, it will do so only if it thinks it is getting something valuable in return. That could be many things, none of them particularly desirable for Riyadh. The Saudis may fear that Tehran sees the U.S. as tacitly agreeing not to thwart Iranian efforts to seize control of the entire fertile crescent, from Basra to Beirut.

Remember: Middle East diplomacy is so complicated and duplicitous that this latest Saudi move could just as easily be a feint. If, for example, the Saudis were contemplating a strike against Iran, they might want to make nice to hide their intentions. Either way, this is a story to watch.

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  • S.C. Schwarz

    Since the US is withdrawing from the field, our former allies are seeking accommodation where they can. Look to see this trend accelerate in eastern Europe, the Middle East, and around the South China Sea.

  • ChangeIranNow

    Iran’s history of relations with its neighbors has been a rocky one, made even more recently because of its push for acquiring a nuclear capability and its oversized support for Assad in Syria with cash, weapons and fighters. Iran’s neighbors view these as destabilizing events, but just like having to live next to an unpleasant neighbor on your street, sometimes the best strategy is to make nice and bring him a pie in the hopes he doesn’t shoot up your house. Something similar is going on in the Gulf and Kuwait’s visit which is just a reminder of the very delicate position many of these nations have in their relationships with Iran. Ultimately though, what reassures Saudi Arabia and many of those other nations is the rock solid support the U.S. has given those Gulf States in the event of Iranian military intervention. That support is crucial in offsetting Iran’s growing ambitions and is the unspoken and often unseen strength in meeting Iranian ambitions. The fact that U.S. naval warships are allowed port, supply and repair facilities in many of these Gulf States despite Iranian objections is testament to the power dynamics at play in the Gulf.

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