Could Raisi be good for Iranian-Saudi relations?

Iranian President-Elect Ebrahim Raisi holds a press conference at Shahid Beheshti conference hall on 21 June, 2021 in Tehran, Iran. [Getty]
7 min read
25 June, 2021
Analysis: Ongoing talks between historical rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia are likely to be boosted by the recent election of 'hardliner' Ebrahim Raisi, whose policy will align closely with that of Ayatollah Khamenei and the IRGC.

At Iranian President-Elect Ebrahim Raisi's first post-election news conference, he stated that on Tehran's side "no obstacles" stand in the way of restoring official Iranian-Saudi relations. 

Even if this is true, Iranian-Saudi relations will not be frictionless for the foreseeable future. Mending the schisms between these two Middle Eastern powers will take time. 

However, with "hardliners" now further empowered in Iran's government, there are reasons to believe that Raisi's presidency could bode positively for this bilateral relationship.

Raisi, far more than outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, will align with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Some experts argue that this could benefit Iran's relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states that have had a history of tense relations with Tehran since 1979. 

With diplomats from Saudi Arabia and Iran engaging in talks in Baghdad since April 2021, continued, and possibly deeper, dialogue between the two countries is likely to carry on during Raisi's tenure.

"Riyadh wants to see regional crises - chiefly the one next door in Yemen - come to an end and believes that talking to Iran is the best means to that end"

What Riyadh wants

"The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states see a Raisi victory as a potentially positive outcome," explained Dr Sanam Vakil, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, in an interview with The New Arab

"Unlike Rouhani, they see Raisi, who is close to the Supreme Leader and the security and intelligence apparatus, as being able to deliver on regional compromises. This changed view will enable both sides to build on the current dialogue underway in Baghdad."

Against the backdrop of Joe Biden's presidency and nuclear talks between the Iranians and the P5+1 in Vienna, which could possibly result in a "JCPOA 2.0", the Saudis have chosen to engage the Iranians as a strategic way forward. The Aramco attacks of September 2019 underscored the Kingdom's vulnerabilities to Iranian "proxies" and partners in the region, giving the Saudis ground to pursue dialogue with Tehran.

Riyadh wants to see regional crises - chiefly the one next door in Yemen - come to an end and believes that talking to Iran is the best means to that end, even though major disagreements are set to remain points of contention. The hope in Riyadh is that tensions with Iran can be contained and effectively managed.

Analysis
Live Story

The Vision 2030 strategy of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) hinges on the diversification of the Kingdom's economy, which will be far more realistic in a region that is somewhat stabilised and where Saudi Arabia's borders are secure. 

Furthermore, MBS highly values his standing in Washington, especially among Democrats. The Crown Prince seeks to gain greater favor with the Biden administration, and pursuing a more diplomatic approach to regional issues serves this purpose. To this point, the interests which the Saudis have for talking to the Iranians will remain relevant even after Rouhani's presidency ends.

For their part, there is also every reason to expect the Iranian leadership, regardless of who is president, to continue welcoming talks between Tehran and all GCC states. The state of Iran's relations with the US and its economic woes, drastically worsened by sanctions and Covid-19, push Tehran to engage with Gulf monarchies, including Saudi Arabia. 

"After years of maximum pressure and regional tensions, dialogue and detente with the GCC is also in Tehran's interests," said Dr Vakil. "Reducing regional tensions can help Iran prioritise rebuilding its economy."

"Shortly after the historic al-Ula summit in January 2021, a special envoy of the Qatari foreign minister, said Doha was ready to help Saudi Arabia and Iran engage each other"

The wider GCC 

Other GCC states have the potential to serve in bridging roles between Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

Although the UAE has long aligned with Saudi Arabia against Iran on regional issues, Abu Dhabi, especially since 2019, has been increasingly engaging Iran to cool temperatures in the Gulf and mitigate the risks of an armed conflict involving the Islamic Republic. Therefore, Abu Dhabi could potentially play a useful role in helping the Saudis and Iranians ease some degree of friction in certain areas.

Qatar, too, could possibly succeed on this front. In fact, shortly after the historic al-Ula summit in January 2021, Mutlaq Al-Qahtani, a special envoy of the Qatari foreign minister, said Doha was ready to help Saudi Arabia and Iran engage each other. 

Nonetheless, there could be limits to Qatar's ability to succeed in a bridging role between its larger neighbours in the Gulf. As noted by the European Council on Foreign Relations' Dr Cinzia Bianco, a "trust deficit" between the Saudi/UAE bloc and Qatar on Iran-related files has, at least thus far, thwarted Doha from playing any effective mediating role between Tehran and Riyadh.

A mural in Idlib, Syria, depicting Iran as an octopus dropping bombs (L) and the Gulf reconciliation of the 2021 al-Ula summit (R), representing geopolitics in the region. [Getty]
A mural in Idlib, Syria, depicts Iran as an octopus dropping bombs (L) and the Gulf reconciliation of the 2021 al-Ula summit (R), representing the interconnected nature of geopolitics in the region. [Getty]

Saudi Arabia does not expect Doha to have the same approach to "strategic Saudi interests on issues such as Iran's ballistic missile capabilities and the future of its regional proxy network," she added. 

However, if the region's geopolitical landscape remains unstable, Qatar is set to remain "a relevant interlocutor for the Gulf monarchies and, especially, for Iran," wrote Dr Bianco.

"This value is linked to its special ties to Turkey, as well as its role as key mediator in Afghanistan's conflicts and in other theatres in the wider Middle East and Africa region."

Additionally, as Kuwait and Oman commit themselves to relatively neutral foreign policies and work to facilitate greater dialogue and good relations among all in the Gulf, these two GCC members are well-positioned to encourage and facilitate wider dialogue between the Iranians and Saudis in the post-Rouhani era.

"Decades of tension, rivalry, and vitriol between the Iranian and Saudi governments - and many of their citizens - make it difficult for the two powers to agree on much"

Lingering suspicions, skepticism, and distrust

As Riyadh sees it, Raisi's rhetoric about mending bilateral ties does not necessarily mean anything unless Tehran's actions back up its words. 

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not the Iranian president, is in the driver's seat when it comes to Tehran's foreign policy. Thus, the view from Saudi Arabia and many other countries is that Iran's regional conduct will most likely continue without any drastic shifts despite the change in presidency. After all, during Rouhani's presidency, Iran's unelected institutions (the IRGC, Supreme National Security Council, etc.) took a high level of control over the country's foreign policy decision-making.

In response to Raisi's news conference, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud stated that his country would pass judgement on Iran's new president by "the reality on the ground". Notably, after Raisi's win, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain were the two GCC member-states that did not send the president-elect congratulatory messages.

"I don't believe a president has a major role to play in the thawing of relations," stated Prince Talal Al Faisal, a Saudi businessman and junior Royal, in an interview with The New Arab

Analysis
Live Story

"Ultimately, foreign policy and the [IRGC] are controlled by the [Supreme Leader], and he's not being replaced."

He added that "what we're seeing with this election is Iran going from a country with a 'friendly' outlooking face to an Iran with a face that better represents the true position of the ultimate decision maker, the [Supreme Leader]."

There is no denying that decades of tension, rivalry, and vitriol between the Iranian and Saudi governments - and many of their citizens - make it difficult for the two powers to agree on much. 

Although the Iranian-Saudi talks that have taken place this year in Iraq bode well for regional security, major breakthroughs leading to significant improvements in bilateral relations will require patience.

The road to a smooth Iranian-Saudi relationship will be bumpy and difficult. But this would be the case no matter who won last week's presidential election. 

Nonetheless, it is in the interest of the wider Middle East for Tehran and Riyadh to at least maintain channels of communication and, ideally, restore official diplomatic relations. More, not less, Iranian-Saudi dialogue is needed, irrespective of the JCPOA's uncertain future.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero