Riyadh has its political reasons for initiating dialogue exercises with Tehran. Rumors of a workshop held in Baghdad towards this end have turned into fact—corroborated by hints on official platforms in Iraq and statements on official diplomatic platforms in the two countries. Until a communication channel is opened in parallel to the ongoing negotiations in Vienna on the reactivation of the nuclear agreement, the success or failure of these negotiations will weigh significantly on the nature and contents of the Saudi-Iranian dialogue.
Tehran also has its reasons for favoring a political solution with Riyadh and other GCC countries. However, it is hard for observers to clearly grasp the nuances that could prompt Iran to embrace serious dialogue with Saudi Arabia. The matter does not hinge on a newfound maturity or concrete transformation in the doctrine of the Islamic Republic’s regime, nor is it influenced by any qualitative development that occurred to the structure of this regime system or the identity of its leaders. Iran’s religious leadership continues to hold the reins of power, and the Revolutionary Guard and its political and economic offshoots continue to dictate the country's policy, not to mention expectations that in next month's elections the presidency may well fall into the hands of the country's hardliners.
Iran's ideological hostility towards Saudi Arabia explains why Riyadh broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran in January 2016, just five months after signing the Vienna nuclear agreement. It seems more sincere compared to the stance espoused by Tehran nowadays about welcoming cooperation, friendship and dialogue. While these positive statements come from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its spokesman, the recent famous leaks of Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif make it unequivocally clear that Iran’s decision-making—across the board—lies not in the hands of Zarif’s ministry nor Hassan Rouhani’s presidency.
By contrast, dialogue from the Saudi perspective is decided upon by a single well-recognized authority that transparently expresses the Kingdom's policies and options. If Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were to declare Saudi Arabia's desire to forge friendly relations with Iran, then that would be that, tossing the ball in the Iranians’ court, who would be obliged to express a serious will to embrace dialogue.
However, Iran, given its ruling system and the regime’s ideology cannot, and will not, be as unequivocal as Riyadh.
The Saudi crown prince is offering normal relations with Iran, but on terms that Tehran cannot meet. He said, “All we aspire towards is to have good relations with Iran. “We do not want Iran’s situation to be difficult. On the contrary, we want Iran to grow… and to push the region and the world towards prosperity. Our problem lies with Iran's negative behavior.” On this note, the crown prince traced the conflict back to Iran's support for outlawed militias and its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, as areas warranting concern. In a nutshell, Saudi Arabia is requesting normal relations, on par with normal relations between any two ordinary countries.
Iran cannot be a normal, ordinary country like any other. In essence, since the time of Khomeini, the Islamic Republic rose in Iran to establish a system that can only sustain itself on the basis of ongoing conflict with its neighbors and the world. After the nuclear agreement was struck in Vienna six years ago, Iran could have reached out politically and economically to the entire world and transformed into a stable, prosperous country that is attractive to investors. It could have engaged in a strategic development plan to modernize its infrastructure and universities, and drive growth in the industrial, agricultural, health and scientific research sectors.
But then what would be the raison d'être of the "revolution" regime and religious leadership if their assigned responsibilities are focused—as is the case with any normal system of government—on achieving development, prosperity and peace? How can the Republic of the “Supreme Guide,” the Revolutionary Guard and the Quds Force secure their authority, wealth, influence and longevity if they cease extending Tehran's tentacles of power across four Arab capitals.
Prospective harmony between Iran and Saudi Arabia brings an end to the Kingdom’s vilification in the Iranian regime’s rhetoric in Tehran. It disrupts the dynamics of the doctrinal discord that Tehran has been striving to stoke. Friendly, cooperative relations between Tehran and Riyadh upset the cornerstones of Iran’s “opposition” stance, and so do its moral classifications of Saudi Arabia, GCC countries and the rest of the region. This poses a threat to the security of the "revolutionary regime" that cannot be tolerated. What then is left for the regime in Iran to sell to Iranians and to its opposition camp in the region after that?
The logic of Saudi Arabia, as explained by the crown prince, is based on non-acceptance of militias in the neighboring countries. The logic of normalizing relations with Iran is based on the assumption that Tehran will remedy the damage it caused to the security and stability of countries in the region. The groundwork for forging better relations lies in good faith.
Tehran is using the Vienna negotiations as a power card against key countries, so that the outcome of these negotiations—even if they fail—can be used in its dialogue with Riyadh. Tehran is fighting above its weight class because of the influence it wields in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq and the constant threat it poses to Saudi territory in the form of missiles and drones manufactured in Iran and launched by Houthi militias in Yemen.
Tehran will not give up its territorial gains, and only wants dialogue with Saudi Arabia to further solidify these gains in the regional geopolitical landscape. The attitude towards dialogue is not founded on a political viewpoint adverse to the principle of excellent relations with Iran; rather, the preponderance of the failure of dialogue with Iran is based on factual evidence regarding the structure of Tehran’s regime and its modus operandi. Tehran will most probably engage in dialogue with Riyadh so long that its outcome falls short of the expectations of the Saudi crown prince, because the Iranian regime—since its establishment in 1979—has been unable to do so. The regime will simply tumble and collapse if it becomes a normal regime that does not impinge upon its neighbors and respects cooperative and peaceful relations.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, Arab news outlet Annahar Al Arabi.