Saudi Arabia is beginning to take steps towards easing the situation with Iran following attacks on Saudi Aramco oil facilities Sept. 14. According to a New York Times report, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has invited leaders from Pakistan and Iraq to facilitate dialogue between Riyadh and Tehran. Iran has not directly attacked its neighbor with a military force, much less claimed responsibility for an attack, since 1984 when Iranian fighter jets crossed into Saudi Arabia. On May 7 and June 5, 1984, Saudi fighters intercepted an enemy aircraft and in the second instance, shot down two planes.
However, since that time, the relations have been difficult, but mostly over diplomatic and political grievances. A truck bomb exploded on June 23, 1996 in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, with hundreds of American casualties. The United States blamed Iran, but it was never confirmed. With the recent drone attack, however, governments of several nations including European powers have now blamed Tehran, despite its repeated denials. In light of the evidence, a convincing argument can be made to that end.
The attack on the Saudi oil industry is also suspicious as Iran has a strong motivation to initiate an economic offensive. Since US President Donald Trump renewed sanctions against the Iranian government, businesses, and private individuals, Iran’s economy has been in shambles. It has few buyers left for its primary export, oil, and even those shipments are at risk of seizure. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has struggled with courting European leaders for economic relief as it gradually began exceeding limits set in place by the 2015 nuclear agreement. An attack on its main oil rival, Saudi Arabia, would send a clear message while forcing another nation to experience a small dosage of the industrial setbacks Tehran is enduring.
Short of a full-scale war or retaliatory attack, which would also risk the former, MBS is playing with few cards up his sleeve. Although Trump issued a strong declaration of military support via Twitter following the drone attack, he was either unwilling to fully commit or talked down by his advisors. Furthermore, US congressional leadership from both political parties heavily indicated they would not support more US involvement in the Middle East, especially in Iran based on inconclusive evidence. In their opinions, it was simply not America’s fight to take up.
Saudi Arabia, lacking support from its strongest ally, could have turned to the United Arab Emirates, but it has grown weary of defending the kingdom amid controversial moves by de facto leader MBS. The murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and a rising civilian death toll in Yemen have combined to make Emirati leadership reluctant to rush into another engagement with Riyadh. The UAE has to consider its tourism industry and cannot afford to risk more international backlash that could threaten its primary industry.
MBS is likely to be considering tourism as well after putting measures in place to open his country to foreigners. As in the case with Egypt, domestic turmoil and terrorism can kill any prospects of tourism. Egypt still has not rebuilt itself following the revolution, subsequent coup, and continued terrorist attacks. MBS is intelligent enough to realize that his nation cannot simultaneously field rockets from Iran and expect to nurture a fledgeling tourism industry. Previously, Houthi missiles launched across the Yemen border have unsuccessfully targeted the Riyadh airport among other points of interest.
By beginning discussions with Tehran, Riyadh might prevent the situation devolving further. Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, was the first to visit Saudi Arabia on Sept. 19. MBS reportedly told Khan, “I want to avoid war.” Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi visited a week later on Sept. 25 and MBS repeated the same message. He offered MBS to use Baghdad as a meeting place for discussions.
So far, Iran is receptive to MBS’ spirit of diplomacy and eager to engage its longtime adversary.
“In a situation where the Saudis would like to negotiate with Iran, if they pursue regional issues at the negotiating table and not by killing people, they will certainly have the Islamic Republic along with them,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The prospect of an accord between the two nations could have historic implications. The nations have seldom seen eye-to-eye, especially since the Iranian revolution, after which the Iranian regime began to push Shi’ite Islam across the region. Since that time, Iranian-backed proxy militias have engaged in destabilizing movements against Israel, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, to name a few. It arguably boasts the largest proxy network in the region, something that the international community would be keen to see scaled-down.
Iran also has its hand in the war in Yemen and the protests in Iraq, making MBS’ invitation to Mahdi even more significant. Mahdi has a vested interested in keeping the peace with Iran to prevent further chaos disrupting his nation. Also, bringing the Yemen Civil War to an amicable end will undoubtedly require discussion between the two dominant forces: Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The idea of MBS and Hassan turning to diplomatic means to put an end to their regional competitiveness is a welcome sign in a region rife with bloodshed. Regardless of whether or not Tehran launched the drone strike on Saudi Aramco, it was certainly a wakeup call to Saudi leadership.