Did Iran defeat Saudi Arabia in Yemen?

Saudi Arabia and Iran on a rapprochement?

After a lengthy silence, Iran has for the first time confirmed media reports of direct talks with regional rival Saudi Arabia. "De-escalating tensions between the two Muslim countries on the Persian Gulf is in the interests of both nations and the region," said Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Said Chatibsadeh at a press conference on Monday. Both bilateral and regional issues had been discussed, but it was too early to announce results.

The government in Tehran, which is currently also negotiating the future of the nuclear agreement in Vienna, is only in office for a few weeks. Presidential elections are due in mid-June.

"Careful way of de-escalation"

About the reasons for the rapprochement, says the Iran expert Adnan Tabatabai from the Bonn advisory and research association for the Orient, Carpo: "After the drastic escalation of the security situation in the Persian Gulf region in 2019 and the devastating effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic since 2020, both Tehran and Riyadh seem to recognize that the path of de-escalation must be followed. But it is a very fragile process that must be protected politically so that all those involved see the immediate benefit and see their political face both inside and out can preserve foreign policy. "

Iran and Saudi Arabia are vying for supremacy in the Islamic world in general and in the region in particular

Tabatabai suspects that the Rouhani government hopes that the opening of a dialogue with Riyadh will also support the conclusion of a renewed nuclear agreement and thus an end to the US economic sanctions. The future of the agreement hangs in the balance after the unilateral exit of the US under Donald Trump and the subsequent series of violations by Tehran.

Last week, Iraqi President Barham Salih confirmed that representatives of the two opposing countries had held direct talks. These took place "more than once" in Iraq. Prime Minister Kadhimi's personal contacts and good coordination with his predecessor Adel Abdul-Mahdi probably helped to initiate direct talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Baghdad, Tabatabai suspects.

Phase of increased tension

Iran and Saudi Arabia are vying for supremacy in the Islamic world in general, and in the region in particular, where both sides are on opposing sides in multiple conflicts. They are also fighting for influence in Iraq. There is a minority of Sunnis (37 percent) compared to a majority of Shiites (60 Shiites). Iran regards itself as the protecting power of the Shiites, Saudi Arabia as the protecting power of the Sunnis.

Iran and Riyadh no longer have diplomatic relations since 2016. Angered by the execution of the Shiite cleric Nimr Baker al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia, conservative demonstrators stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran and set parts of the building on fire. The bilateral relations were broken off.

In response to the US “policy of maximum pressure” and tightened sanctions, Iran even threatened to stop oil exports from the Persian Gulf. In September 2019, attacks with drones and cruise missiles severely damaged two large plants belonging to the Saudi Arabian oil company Saudi Aramco. As a result, Saudi oil production collapsed by half. The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels from Yemen had admitted to the attack. However, the US government saw the cause in Tehran and President Trump declared himself ready to retaliate against Iran.

In the Trump era: Unreserved US support for Saudi Arabia

The US increased its troops in the region. Tensions in the Middle East continued to escalate, including the killing of Iranian General Kassem Soleimani by a US missile in Baghdad in early 2020.

Saudi Arabia discovers diplomacy

When Joe Biden took office, there was a turning point in American Middle East politics. Biden clearly criticized Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen and withdrew US support from Riyadh. At the same time, he began negotiations with Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. In this changed international environment, the Saudi heir to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman, announced at the end of April that he was striving for good relations with Tehran and that he wanted a prosperous neighbor. The focus is on regional diplomacy, he said on Saudi television.

The Middle East expert Sanam Vakil from the British think tank Chatham House now sees a possible rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran in the Yemen conflict, as she told DW: "Riyadh is clearly trying to support Iran, if not to help to end the Yemen war. This, however, would require Tehran to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table if it can do that. "