Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – The London-based pan-Arab newspaper al-`Arab reports on the visit of Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud to Tehran, where he met with his counterpart, Hossein Amirabdollahian, as well as with President Ebrahim Raisi. It was the first such visit by a high Saudi official since Iran and Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic relations in 2016. It came some months after China’s Premier Xi Jinping brokered a reopening of the two countries’ embassies in their respective capitals on March 10.
Bin Farhan said on Saturday that the Saudi embassy in Tehran will reopen shortly. He added that he had conveyed to President Raisi from Saudi King Salman bin Abdel Aziz an invitation to visit Riyadh.
Bin Farhan affirmed “the importance of cooperation between the two countries in regional affairs and sea traffic.” He also stressed the need for cooperation of all the countries in the Gulf region to ensure they remain free of nuclear weapons.
The Iranians are suspected of attacks in the Gulf on United Arab Emirates oil tankers, which are revenge for the US not allowing Iran to export its petroleum. The Saudis are seeking to end this sabotage and piracy by offering Iran an economic lifeline that will allow them to evade the worst of Trump’s maximum pressure sanctions (which are still in place under Biden).
For his part, Iranian Foreign Minister Abdullahian emphasized the need for more robust economic ties between the two countries. He said both would mobilize the private sector in the fields of transportation, tourism, and other sectors.
Al-`Arab reports that the Biden administration had cautioned the Saudis against drawing closer to Iran, but that the royal family had decided to pursue their own interests, which they now believe are best served by a more neutral stance and better relations with Iran.
Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari reported from Tehran that the two countries will seek to raise their bilateral trade to $1 billion a year, from only $15 million per year now.
Such visits are not uprecedented, and used to take place under King Abdullah. Indeed, the last visit of a Saudi foreign minister to Tehran occurred 17 years ago under his reign. When King Salman acceded to the throne in January 2015, however, he and his son Mohammed Bin Salman adopted a hard line view of Iran. From their point of view the ayatollahs in Tehran were propping up Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad, whom the Saudis despised. They were backing Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which was antipathetic to the Saudis and had become a pivotal power in Beirut. The Iranians were supporting the Helpers of God or Houthis, drawn from North Yemen’s Zaydi Shiite population. They were intervening in Iraq through the Shiite militias they trained and funded. In short, they had Saudi Arabia surrounded, and worse, they were winning on every front.
In 2016, the Saudis executed the prominent Shiite clergyman Nimr al-Nimr, and angry Iranian crowds attacked the Saudi embassy and the consulate in Mashhad. In the wake of these attacks, both countries severed diplomatic ties.
The two countries are attempting to bury the hatchet over issues such as Syria, where al-Assad won with Iranian and Russian help. The Saudis have now renewed their recognition of him and hosted him at the Arab League. Riyadh is also trying to achieve peace in Yemen, having failed to dislodge the Houthis, and they think Iran’s leaders can help quell the tensions there.
The spokesman for the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Soudani, which is close to Iran and to the Shiite militias backed by Iran in Iraq, said that Iraq welcomed the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. He said that promoting regional peace and the end of boycotts would encourage more foreign direct investment in Iraq, which has been paralyzed because of regional tensions. The Biden administration has finally given Iraq permission to repay some $3 billion to Iran for energy supplies.
Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a massive transformation, hoping to move from an economy based on petroleum sales to one based on services and global investment. That is, it hopes to become a big Switzerland or Dubai. The power behind the throne, Bin Salman, appears to have decided that his Vision 2030 cannot hope to be accomplished if Saudi Arabia is bogged down fighting the Houthis and tangling with Iran.
Iran’s President Raisi said that the spectacle of Iran and Saudi Arabia having good relations is abhorrent to enemies, especially to Israel. It certainly is the case that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu dearly wishes Bin Farhan had come to visit him in Jerusalem rather than going to Tehran. The Saudis, however, have made clear that normalization with Israel depends on rights for the Palestinians, something Netanyahu is not prepared to offer. One of the bases for Iran-Saudi cooperation was announced from the Tehran meeting as a joint commitment to justice for Palestine.