Panic pushes Saudis towards detente with Iran

U-turns do not come bigger than Riyadh’s shift from obloquy to olive branch

Prince Saud al-Faisal bin Abdulaziz, Saudi foreign minister, arrives at the meeting of the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh in March

American and Iranian diplomats are this week trying to untie the tightest knots in the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme – especially to agree a level of uranium enrichment with which most of the Islamic Republic’s neighbours and the world can live. There is no guarantee they will succeed. But Saudi Arabia, long-term US ally and Iran’s rival for control of the Gulf, obviously suspects they might. The Saudis have dialled down their high dudgeon at the mere prospect of a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran.

Only last year, the Saudis were huffing and puffing about the perfidious Americans, hinting that President Barack Obama was so unreliable they would have to look elsewhere for allies. Exasperated by US failure to strike at the Iran-allied regime of Bashar al-Assad after last August’s sarin gas attack on rebel Syrian enclaves, and outraged by November’s interim nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, Riyadh refused to take the UN Security Council seat to which it had been elected. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then Saudi spy chief, warned of a “major shift” away from the US. Salman, the crown prince, pivoted the country towards Asia, signing a string of notional defence co-operation deals. The Saudis even made overtures to Russia.

But last month, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, extended an invitation to visit the kingdom to Javad Zarif, his Iranian counterpart. For now, the Iranians are playing hard to get, as is their wont, with Mr Zarif pleading he must first focus on the nuclear talks. Does this herald a regional sea change? U-turns do not come much bigger than this Saudi shift from obloquy to olive branch.

While there was always a histrionic element to Saudi anger – where, after all, could they get anything like the security guarantees the US provides? – it had been simmering for some time. Once Mr Obama gave his blessing to the toppling of close US (and Saudi) ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, began dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood – seen by the Saudis as a threatening rival to their brand of absolute monarchy and absolutist Wahhabi Islam – and then withheld military aid to Egypt after last July’s army coup, the House of Saud came to regard the US president as a handmaid of sedition.

But the Sunni Wahhabis’ hostility towards Iran – Shia and Persian – as it cut a strategic swath across Arab heartlands from Baghdad to Beirut is visceral. The Saudis support Syria’s (mostly Sunni) rebels largely because they want to hit Iran by bringing down its allies, but also because Wahhabism abominates the Shia as heretics and idolators. Yet, following Mr Obama’s visit to Riyadh in March, there has been a marked uptick in local diplomatic traffic.

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.

Mr Obama appears to have convinced the Saudis he is serious about pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran, as well as a self-regulating balance of power in the Middle East and the Gulf. And he has made the point that the darkest threat to everyone, Saudis as well as Iranians, is the Sunni-Shia sectarian bloodbath in the Levant and concomitant re-emergence of al-Qaeda-style jihadism – dramatised on Tuesday as jihadis operating on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border over-ran Mosul, Iraq’s second city. Hopefully, Mr Obama will also have hinted at the limits to western tolerance of the Saudi habit of exporting extremists nurtured on Wahhabi fanaticism.

The key man in Saudi security is Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister who prioritises counter-terrorism rather than regime change in Syria. The stars that have aligned here are not particularly bright. The tentative Saudi-Iranian detente arises out of panic – shared by the US and its allies – at the chain of regional upheavals that has undermined autocracy but re-energised jihadism. Prince Saud’s invitation to Mr Zarif did not come out of the blue.

david.gardner@ft.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

More on this topic

Suggestions below based on Saudi Arabia