We can escape a zero-sum struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia – if we act now | Abdulaziz Sager and Hossein Mousavian
Joe Biden’s presidency is a chance to build on existing quiet cooperation. Our leaders must grasp it swiftly
Back in May 2019, we – an Iranian former diplomat and a Saudi chair of the Gulf Research Center – called for dialogue between our countries’ respective leaders. We warned that the alternative would increase tensions that could boil over into a catastrophic confrontation.
Since then we have witnessed a string of attacks on Saudi and Iranian oil tankers in international waters; a major strike on Saudi Aramco facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais; a close brush with conflict between Iran and the United States in the aftermath of General Qassem Soleimani’s killing by a US drone; and then, late last year, the killing of a top nuclear scientist in Iran. While tempers seem to have cooled since then, we remain at the mercy of a single miscalculation that could turn the protracted cold war between our states hot, potentially ushering in disastrous consequences for the entire region. With the arrival of a new administration in Washington, the time has come to move from confrontation to dialogue.
During the past four decades, relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran have oscillated between confrontation and competition but also cooperation. Today, we are at the bottom of a cycle. Yet we share a sense that while our governments stand at odds on a range of regional issues, there is nothing inevitable about this enmity – nor is it condemned to be permanent.
The first step toward a tolerable modus vivendi would be for each side to recognise the other’s threat perceptions – real or imagined – and embrace a set of foundational principles upon which to build.
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia perceive the other to be keen on dominating the region. Riyadh views Iran as intent on encircling the kingdom with its allied non-state actors; Tehran views Riyadh as a key facilitator of US efforts to contain and undermine the Islamic Republic. Each country believes that the other is determined to spread its own Islamic jurisprudence at the expense of the other. Riyadh considers Iran’s ballistic missiles arsenal to be a threat to its national security, especially its critical infrastructure. Tehran regards the Kingdom’s purchase of large quantities of sophisticated western arms as exacerbating the conventional weapons asymmetry in the region. Riyadh charges Iran with interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states such as Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Iraq; Tehran sees Saudi Arabia doing the same in these very countries.
To break this vicious cycle and move beyond the blame game, our leaders need to engage in direct discussions guided by the following fundamentals: i) conducting relations based on mutual respect, according to mutual interest and on an equal footing; ii) preserving and respecting sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence and the inviolability of international boundaries of all states in the region; iii) non-interference in internal affairs of states; iv) rejecting the threat or use of force and committing to peaceful settlement of all disputes; v) rejecting the policy of supporting sectarian divisions, employing sectarianism for political objectives, and supporting and arming militias in the regional states; vi) respecting the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations, and in particular inviolability of diplomatic facilities; vii) strengthening Islamic solidarity and avoiding conflict, violence, extremism and sectarian tension; viii) full cooperation on counterterrorism measures; ix) treating the religious minority in the other’s country as citizens of that country, not primarily as co-religionists with transnational loyalties; x) rejecting the pursuit of hegemony by any state in the region; xi) ensuring freedom of navigation and the free flow of oil and other resources to and from the region, and the protection of critical infrastructure; and xii) prohibiting the development or procurement of all forms of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
Mutually acceptable guiding principles are a critical starting point. But action is needed to build confidence after decades of antagonism and mistrust. Diplomacy requires dialogue while direct discussions will require a roadmap, which includes a set of reciprocal confidence-building measures and pursues a clear vision for a mutually acceptable regional security arrangement. The United Nations can play an important role in leading or supporting such a regional dialogue process.
All this may seem an impossible task for two governments apparently locked in an escalatory cycle. Yet it is important to recognise that both countries have successfully maintained quiet channels of cooperation and dialogue all along. Even amid escalating tensions, Iran and Saudi Arabia engaged in fruitful dialogue over facilitating Iranian Muslim participation in the hajj pilgrimage.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have already taken actions that belie the notion of an inescapable, zero-sum struggle. Our two nations can and should build on these positive examples of tentative cooperation to reduce tensions in our volatile region at a time when any spark could set alight the entire region. Joe Biden’s presidency now offers an opportunity for a new beginning. But time is of the essence. Postponing de-escalation would be a grave mistake, as the region has proved time and again that on the rare occasion that opportunities for constructive dialogue present themselves, they must be grasped swiftly before they vanish.