Editor’s note: Saudi-Iran dialogue continues but has made little progress. As James Jeffrey of the Wilson Center and Bilal Saab of the Middle East Institute argue, this is partly because the two powers have fundamentally different goals for the negotiations and because the power imbalance in Iran’s favor is profound. They suggest ways Saudi Arabia could improve its bargaining power and argue that the United States can help strengthen Riyadh’s position.
As British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan wisely said in 1958, “pine to pine is better than war to war”. In foreign policy or in everyday life, talking is better than fighting. But what if pine-pine achieves little, or worse, potentially backfires?
The direct talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two long-time rivals, at first glance appear to signal another major shift in increasingly fluid Middle East politics stemming from the 2020 Abraham Accords and US President’s visit Joe Biden followed in the July 2022 region. These talks – which we support in principle – have been largely disappointing. The negligible progress at the negotiating table is due to the different goals and regional positions of Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Conversations between competitors typically fall into two categories: the transformative and the transactional.
Transformation talks are intended to remedy the situation underlying Conflicts, be it through compromises or force majeure. Germany’s rapprochement with France, which culminated in the 1963 Elysée Treaty between Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and French President Charles de Gaulle, is one such example. Another reason is the US negotiations with Japan in 1945 after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in the surrender of Japan.
In contrast, transactional talks aim to manage the details of a conflict or gain tactical advantages within a conflict. An example would be the US-Soviet arms control negotiations during the Cold War. These talks were never expected to result in a resolution of the underlying ideological conflict and then be firmly integrated into the global system, but rather to make that conflict more predictable, minimize the risk of unwanted “black swan” disasters, and avoid misunderstandings.
Both types of conversations can be useful. However, it is crucial not to confuse one with the other. And that brings us to Saudi Arabia and Iran. Since April 2021, the two sides have held five rounds of negotiations in Baghdad (a sixth was postponed in August due to political turmoil in Iraq), and during that time it seems the most important, and perhaps only thing, they’ve agreed on is an agreement this will be allow Iran to send thousands of its citizens to the kingdom to take part in the annual haj pilgrimage. Although the Yemen ceasefire between Saudi Arabia and the Iran-backed Houthis has been heralded as a breakthrough in talks, its cause has less to do with positive Iranian intervention and more to do with the Houthis’ inability to capture the strategically important city of Marib.
The central reason why the Saudi-Iran talks have achieved almost nothing is the large and complex asymmetry in the negotiations. There seems to be a fatal disagreement about the nature of the talks and their goals. Both sides have fundamentally different demands and complaints. That’s what they call it in the Arab world hiwar al-torshaynor the “Dialogue of the Deaf”.
Having attended several closed meetings with senior Saudi officials over the past few months to discuss regional security issues, we believe that from these talks, Riyadh expects at least a commitment from Tehran to halt attacks on the kingdom, either directly or how in September 2019 when it fired 25 drones and missiles at Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais or by armed proxies in Yemen and Iraq. To be sure, the Saudis would welcome Iran cutting back on its missile and drone arsenal, abandoning its nuclear ambitions, and reining in its militias across the region – in short, curbing its quest for regional hegemony – but they understand that these are unrealistic demands are. Thus, Riyadh’s approach fits the transaction model.
Saudi Arabia’s core demand is based on national security, but Iran’s is not, at least not directly. In our view, Iran is using the talks to achieve two main goals: First, it is trying to foster stronger diplomatic and economic ties with the Arab Gulf States, which it badly needs to deal with its poor economic situation – a transaction target in its own way . Second, it wants to drive a deeper wedge between Saudi Arabia and the United States by pretending to be a good neighbor committed to dialogue. Creating that impression bolsters the position of policymakers in Washington, who advocate further reducing the US military footprint in the Middle East, a long-standing goal of the Iranians. This second goal is more strategic and transformational in nature.
Iran may have learned from its 2019 attack on Saudi Arabia that aggression can expose fault lines in the US-Gulf security partnership and exacerbate tensions between Americans and Gulf Arabs — Washington did not directly respond to Riyadh’s shock the attack. While this may have some merits, it also counteracts one of Tehran’s key foreign policy priorities, namely limiting US combat power in the region. Each time Iran attacks the Saudis or the Emiratis, more US military capabilities are deployed in the region (albeit temporarily), more US-led, multilateral security initiatives are created to deter and defend Iran, and more Arab ones Countries are rushing to normalize relations with Israel.
These are all outcomes that do not serve Iran’s long-term interests, which is why we believe Tehran has likely decided to recalibrate its approach towards the Gulf Arab States. But make no mistake: the Iranian regime’s radicalism suggests there will always be room for violence and intimidation in its strategy for regional hegemony, but Tehran is now keen to combine that hostility with a diplomatic facade. That would explain why Iranian diplomats have consistently exaggerated the potential for negotiations and the (marginal) advances.
Another limitation of the Saudi-Iran talks is the lack of some sort of strategic parity. The long history of US-Soviet arms control shows that both sides have always felt it mutual vulnerable but still confident enough in their relative strategic positions and retaliatory military capabilities, they were able to make concessions and strike trade deals. But that is not the case with the Saudis and the Iranians. The Saudis fear the Iranians and are the militarily weaker party; The Iranians do not feel threatened by the Saudis and are the aggressor. This drastic imbalance is a poor basis for a productive security dialogue.
Creating greater symmetry could make the talks more productive and lead to meaningful outcomes, including concrete non-proliferation and arms control measures that would serve regional stability. One way to do that would be to strengthen the security relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia. A stronger, not weaker, security partnership between the US and Saudi Arabia could push Iran into serious negotiations and possible compromises. Ditto for a more confident Saudi Arabia, reassured by a more credible US deterrent in the region. The Biden administration has begun building stronger bilateral ties since the president’s trip, but many challenges, mostly political and caused by a lack of trust, remain. A good start would be to revise the US approach to military aid to the kingdom (and Washington’s other Arab partners) to focus less on equipment and more on structural reforms in the Saudi military and defense bureaucracy that allow it to do more to be effective and sustainable.
If Washington and Riyadh are successful in rebuilding ties, the next step for the Saudis would be to publicly clarify their regional vision and then their goals in the Baghdad talks, including how they fit into their Middle East goals. States usually abhor clear visions as opposed to opaque generalities, but it is time. With its 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, Saudi Arabia set clear priorities for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace and was able to build on this precedent.
A buy-in from at least some Arab League states would be nice, but speed and precision are more important than dozens of signatures – after all, Saudi Arabia is currently the leader in the Arab world. The vision could refrain from mentioning Iran per se and instead list Riyadh’s demands for peaceful regional coexistence: credible renunciation of weapons of mass destruction; stop supplying heavy weapons to militias; a ban on drone, rocket, or rocket attacks across borders; condemnation of terrorist groups and attacks; and non-interference in the political systems of third countries.
Everyone in the region will immediately understand who the Saudis are describing, while tactfully not naming names. The Saudis could then make it clear to everyone, including Tehran, that new talks are intended firstly to clear up diplomatic misunderstandings that are fueling escalation, but also if Tehran is willing to discuss this Saudi vision, including its application in Yemen, Iraq , Lebanon, Syria and Gaza.
Furthermore, talks on Tehran’s agenda items would not progress without a balanced consideration of Saudi positions. That will at least increase regional confidence in the Saudis on the talks and could open the door for Iran to realize that it will not achieve its goals without changing its behavior in a reciprocal manner.