Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan is due to hold talks with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani on Sunday to discuss a possible cooling of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, after Islamabad confirmed President Donald Trump’s request to mediate between the Middle East’s biggest rivals.
Khan is also due to travel to Saudi Arabia to meet with the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) for further talks.
The visit comes after Khan revealed last month that Trump had asked the Pakistani leader to help defuse tensions between the two powers, with Washington having blamed Tehran for a September attack on the world’s biggest crude oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an op-ed for the Kuwait-based Al Rai newspaper on Thursday that either all the Gulf countries enjoy security “or they will all be deprived of it”. He also reiterated Iran’s security plan for the region, which included calling on Saudi Arabia to work with all other nations in the region, after first introducing it during the UN General Assembly last month.
Will these efforts end the cold war in the region?
It is early to tell. Many experts however don’t seem optimistic, sighting that many extremists on both sides will likely try to sabotage any potential dialogue between the two nations.
On Friday morning, Iran’s State-run IRNA agency said an Iranian-owned oil tanker was hit by two missiles in the Red Sea near the city of Jeddah off Saudi Arabia’s coast.
“I think it’s the work of a third party, and this party could well come from inside Iran,” said Andreas Krieg, assistant professor of defence studies at King’s College London. “This is someone who doesn’t support Zarif’s security initative,” he added.
The recent attack is unlikely to lead to further escalation in the tensions, mostly because the two countries seem willing, more than before, to give mediation a real chance, and the US does not support ratcheting up tensions too.
“Whoever did this is trying to put liability” on Khan’s mediating efforts, Krieg said, adding that Islamabad sees these talks as a window of opportunity to bring the two parties together.
Why is it so difficult to see a breakthrough soon?
Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in several proxy wars over influence all over the Middle East, which have deepened the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shias throughout the past decade. Iran backs Hezbollah in Lebanon, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, a wide range of Shia militias in Iraq, the Shia majority in Bahrain and the Houthis in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia feels strategically vulnerable and surrounded from all sides by Iran’s supporters. It, too, has long given its backing to Sunni political parties in Lebanon, the Syrian opposition and formed a coalition with the UAE to prop up the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi against the Houthis in Yemen.
Analysts say that convincing Tehran and Riyadh to negotiate some kind of settlement needs a major change to happen first on the ground, and collective efforts on the international stage.
“This is more of a tactical move than a strategic choice,” Cinzia Bianco, Gulf researcher fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations said, adding “it’s a short time action to mitigate the impact of any further attacks, rather than a beginning of a comprehensive long-term process.”
Saudi Arabia, in particular, seems ready for a small, but significant, change in its alliances after the attack on Abqaiq oil facility, which is widely seen as a tipping point in the Saudi strategic options.
What other options do the Saudis have?
A straightforward choice: Russia. President Vladimir Putin is due to visit both Saudi Arabia and the UAE in coming days to discuss a wide range of investments and energy deals. However, some experts predict the talks may include defence deals and perhaps a Russian involvement in protecting Saudi strategic facilities.
“After the attack on Abqaiq the Saudis were expecting a reaction, especially from the US, probably in the form of a protection umbrella for infrastructure with international significance, but this reaction has never come,” said Bianco. “I think now they are seriously looking into other options. They will no longer put their eggs in one basket,” she added.
The United States announced the deployment of additional American military forces to Saudi Arabia on Friday including fighter squadrons, an air expeditionary wing and air defense personnel. Together with the 200 forces to Saudi Arabia announced last month, the deployment totaled about 3,000 troops, the Pentagon said.
The American deployment of troops comes before Putin's visit to the Gulf, which the US looks at with caution. Russia has always tried to take a distance away from the dispute in the Gulf, keeping the conversation limited to two main issues: energy and investments. But last month, Putin offered help to defend Saudi Arabia by selling it the advanced S-400 anti-aircraft system after the attack that halted half of its crude oil production.
Putin’s visit to the Gulf highlights the deep disappointment in the US leadership by its closest allies, in the wake of the Turkish military incursion into northeast Syria, after Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from the region, leaving the Kurds, the US’s strongest allies in the fight against Isis, vulnerable.
Although Imran Khan has a mandate from Trump, reaching a breakthrough in the short term, which would probably give Trump a win abroad, still seems unlikely.
“The Saudis and Iranians will eventually engage in a dialogue, mainly on maritime security and maybe Yemen, but this is a long process which is unlikely to be seen anytime soon”, Bianco said.