Conflicts in the Middle East, whether in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, or Yemen, share a common factor: the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. For years, this rivalry has inflamed violence in areas already torn by war and created new battlefields where there had been relative peace before.
It is thus hard to imagine that the two countries could come together for the region’s greater good. But they’ll have to find a way to coexist if the region is ever to be peaceful. Even if they can’t fully resolve their rivalry, they can still contain their hostility. Making this happen will be a challenge, but both sides can take steps now that will help bring the Middle East back from the brink of destruction.
U.S. President Barack Obama, among others, has suggested that the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran “dates back millennia.” But history says otherwise. Despite some periods of heightened tension, particularly following the June 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers, Iran and Saudi Arabia were civil toward each other from 1989–2005. In fact, Iranian Presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatemi took a more moderate tone than their predecessor and pursued improved relations with the Gulf states. This led to Iran and Saudi Arabia restoring diplomatic relations and conducting reciprocal visits between their leaders. Relations even remained polite during the early days of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rule. But the 2011 Arab Spring changed the region’s political power structure. Longstanding dictatorships fell, leaving disorder in their place. Iran and Saudi Arabia took the opportunity to try to establish their primacy in newly destabilized countries, and proxy wars followed.
Things could easily escalate into outright war between the two countries. For example, in April 2015, an Iranian plane attempted to break the Saudi-imposed blockade on Yemen by landing in Sanaa. Saudi fighter jets flew extremely close to the Iranian craft, and destroyed airport runways to prevent the jet from landing. Two Saudi F-15s came so close to the Iranian plane that the pilots could see each other’s faces. If an accident had occurred, the Iranian media would have reported that Saudi Arabia had intentionally downed the Iranian jet. Iran might have had little choice but to retaliate. Such near-misses highlight the need for broader and smarter communication between the two countries. As difficult as is for Iran and Saudi Arabia to speak to one another, this is still the best way for both powers to avoid war.
Beyond avoiding war, Saudi Arabia and Iran have every reason to try to get along. Indeed, their futures are inextricably linked. They are the two strongest powers within the Muslim world, and both have a hand in shaping the trajectory of the Middle East. Neither can succeed unilaterally—they both need one another to accomplish their goals, whether they like it or not. This is due to the high level of interdependence between the two neighbors, especially in the areas of the security of the Gulf and the economic interdependence in the region.
Both countries do say that they want to avoid conflict with one another and that they prefer to have good, neighborly relations. In January, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense, Muhammad bin Salman, said that anyone pushing for war between Iran and Saudi Arabia “is not in their right mind. Because a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the beginning of a major catastrophe in the region…. For sure we will not allow any such thing.” Speaking about Iranian–Saudi relations in February, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, advocated for changing “our paradigm” and assured his Saudi “brothers” that Iran is “prepared to work with Saudi Arabia.” The following month, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said, “If Iran changes its way and its policies, nothing would prevent turning a page and building the best relationship based on good neighborliness, with no meddling in the affairs of others.” With both countries harboring deep mistrust of the other, direct dialogue is necessary to provide opportunities for the parties to better understand each other and begin to reduce their mutual suspicions. To be sure, that is easier said than done. Riyadh refuses to talk to Tehran because of Iran’s involvement in Saudi and Arab affairs. Iran, for its part, argues that talks must happen before it alters its policies. This dialogue, Tehran argues, would make sure that its so-called security needs are represented fairly before it made any strategic changes.
To break this deadlock, both countries should take steps to appease the other. First, they can create a crisis management hotline between Riyadh and Tehran. The hotline would link the two countries’ foreign ministries, which would each establish a new office dedicated to handling regional events taking place independently from the official decision making processes of their governments. Each office will establish a system for managing the logistics of the communications between them. This way, the leaders could speak with one another directly, rather than letting violence do the talking. Indeed, wars often occur as a series of escalatory events, rather than a singular decision. A war between Iran and Saudi Arabia would likely follow such a trajectory, since neither country has declared an interest in declaring war outright. A hotline could help both sides talk about issues as they arise, negating the need for violence.
For example, a Riyadh–Tehran hotline could have been invaluable if Saudi Arabia had downed Iran’s jet in Yemen. It would have allowed both sides to discuss the incident privately, instead of bringing it to the court of public opinion. Future events like this one are more than likely: Iran has troops in Syria, and Saudi Arabia is interested in sending forces to the country as well. A hotline could help reduce the risk of misfires, accidental attacks, and other incidents that would otherwise bring both countries to the brink of war. It should be mentioned that following the Iranian attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran in January, Saudi Arabia cut relations with Iran, exacerbating the crisis significantly and opening the door for possible conflict. Such a hotline was not necessary in the past, when tensions were not this high and the countries could use more conventional diplomatic channels to communicate.
If both sides are unwilling to speak to one another directly, they could consider creating technical committees to prevent all-out war. These committees would include policy experts and technocrats from Iran and Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministries, who could coordinate without involving political officials. Policy experts could work with one another to find approaches that address each other’s interests without involving their governments directly. For example, technical committees could explore how Saudi Arabia can begin official talks with Iran without having to validate Tehran’s role in Arab affairs. They could also propose solutions that address Iran’s security needs, such as protection from spillover coming from neighboring, unstable Iraq, without making Tehran support Iraqi and Yemeni militias, or by sending troops into Syria. These committees could also address other difficult issues, such as falling oil prices, which have put Iran, which is trying to rapidly boost its oil production and exports after years of sanctions, at odds with Saudi Arabia, which is intent on maintaining its share of the oil market.
Lastly, both sides could contain their rivalry by agreeing to curtail their interventions in regional conflicts. Saudi Arabia is worried about Iran becoming a regional hegemon, and it has developed a foreign policy to stop that from happening. Iran could address this concern by assuring regional leaders that it wants to be their partner, rather than their ruler. In fact, Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Javad Zarif has repeatedly emphasized the need for Iran and Saudi Arabia to work together to resolve the region’s political crises, as well as his country’s willingness to do so. But Saudi Arabia has yet to buy his argument. Tehran could prove itself by using its leverage with Yemen’s Houthi rebels, which are fighting the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, to bring about a peace deal in the country. This would serve as a good faith measure without giving up an issue that is central to Iranian security.
At this point, the intervention of a third party would be helpful in encouraging Iran to take such an initiative and Saudi Arabia to reciprocate, perhaps by reining in media incitement. Reciprocity is essential here, as it would allow confidence to grow and the parties to move toward direct talks. This is more likely than it might seem. Both parties are currently entrapped in a damaging cycle of escalation, without a military solution on the horizon. Embracing these crisis management tactics could be the first steps of a way out of their increasingly costly rivalry.