Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the de facto chief executive of Saudi Arabia, said in a televised interview Tuesday that he wants to improve relations with regional rival Iran.
He nevertheless acknowledged Iran’s “negative behavior” created problems for regional and global powers to address.
Kurdish news service Rudaw noted MBS previously “lashed out at Tehran, accusing it fueling regional insecurity” in his public remarks on Iran. His more conciliatory tone on Sunday did not accompany any public commitment to negotiate with Iran, but Iraqi and Western officials said last week that “de-escalation” talks between the two rivals have been quietly held in Baghdad.
Saudi Arabia’s tense relations with Iran took a significant turn for the worse in January 2016, when the Saudis executed prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and 47 others convicted on terrorism charges. The Shiite theocracy that rules Iran vowed Riyadh would “pay a high price” for the execution and accused the Sunni Muslim Saudi monarchy of abusing their Shiite minority.
The Saudis and Iranians have supported opposite sides of regional conflicts in Syria and especially Yemen, whose Iran-backed Houthi insurgents are launching drone and missile strikes at Saudi targets to retaliate against the Saudis for intervening on behalf of the deposed Yemeni government. MBS called for a ceasefire in Yemen during his interview Tuesday.
“At the end of the day, Iran is a neighboring country. All what [sic] we ask for is to have a good and distinguished relationship with Iran. We do not want the situation with Iran to be difficult. On the contrary, we want it to prosper and grow as we have Saudi interests in Iran, and they have Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia, which is to drive prosperity and growth in the region and the entire world,” he said.
“The problem that we have lies with certain negative behaviors they have, whether in terms of their nuclear program, their support of illegal militias in some countries in the region, or their ballistic missile program,” he continued. “We are working now with our partners in the region and the world to find solutions for these problems. We really hope we would overcome them and build a good and positive relationship with Iran that would benefit all parties.”
MBS noted Yemen has been a source of “crisis” for Saudi Arabia on several previous occasions, but the Houthi overthrow of the elected government in 2015 created a far more serious problem that could not be easily resolved. He expressed surprise that other regional powers, or anyone in the international community, could fail to regard the violent overthrow of the Yemeni state as “unacceptable.”
“We really hope that the Houthis will sit with all other Yemeni parties at the negotiations table to reach solutions that guarantee everyone’s rights, and to also safeguard the interests of all the countries in the region. We still have our offer open to ceasefire and provide economic support and everything they need as long as Houthis agree to a ceasefire and sitting on the negotiating table,” he said.
MBS provocatively suggested the Houthis are “Yemeni at the end of the day,” despite their “strong relations with the Iranian regime,” so they should not wait for Tehran’s approval before joining peace negotiations.
Much of the interview was devoted to MBS’ optimistic appraisal of progress on his Saudi Vision 2030 plan to diversify the Saudi economy away from dependence on oil, which requires modernizing and liberalizing Saudi society to attract more foreign investment. The crown prince suggested the success of this plan would soon put the Kingdom in a stronger position to negotiate with Iran and resolve regional problems like Yemen.
Iran is getting what it wants in Yemen after helping its client Syria win a long and bloody civil war. Iranian influence in Iraq and Lebanon appears secure. Iran’s march to nuclear weapons is all but unstoppable. These factors may all have convinced the Saudis to “negotiate an escape” by working out a detente with Iran before their position deteriorates even further.
Ahram Online agreed with much of this analysis Tuesday, adding that the unexpected usefulness of Iraqi Prime Minister Mostafa al-Kazimi as an interlocutor could be helping Riyadh and Tehran find some common ground. They may never be friends, but with MBS soon to ascend the throne and Iran expecting a political and financial windfall from the Biden administration, both regional powers may decide they have better things to do for a few years than scrabble with each other through proxy wars.