Stepping Back from the Brink?

The Saudis may be having second thoughts about a showdown with Iran

As tensions mount in the Gulf and talk grows of an imminent (and possibly accidental) military showdown, a flirtation of sorts has been taking place between two of the principal antagonists: Iran and Saudi Arabia. It may be a mistake to read too much into their seeming change of behaviour, but it could be a pointer to how the crisis may unfold in future.

This apparent rapprochement was reflected in two recent developments.

First, the warm welcome laid on by the Saudi authorities for Iranian pilgrims going to the kingdom for this year’s annual hajj(an estimated 60,000 out of a total 80,000 have already arrived). The official Iranian news agency IRNA published pictures of Iranian pilgrims being greeted by Saudi officials with flowers and sweets as they arrived in Medina for pre-pilgrimage visits to the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad and the burial sites of his companions.

Secondly, Saudi Arabia’s release of the Iranian tanker Happiness I,which docked in the Red Sea port of Jeddah in May because of technical problems. The Saudis had previously refused to free the vessel, citing disputes over repair costs, but last week allowed it to return home. The Iranian foreign ministry officially and publicly thanked the Saudis for their cooperation over the issue and for taking care of the crew.

This courteous behaviour and language contrasts sharply with the vicious invective and harsh accusations exchanged by the two governments in recent times. One recurrent source of antagonism has been complaints by Iranian pilgrims of mistreatment and harassment by Saudi officials and security men at airports and border crossings.

So are the two sides deliberately changing their tone and conduct towards each other? Could this be a prelude to talks and meetings aimed at reducing tensions over the whole range of contentious issues, especially the Yemen war?

Let’s hope so. But it remains to be seen. The Saudis could merely be trying to calm things down for the duration of the hajjseason to avoid disturbances by Iranian pilgrims and the resultant embarrassment. Yet it could also be evidence of a broader re-think.

The US administration has been sending mediators to Tehran to seek political ways out of the current crisis caused by Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear deal and imposition of draconian economic sanctions on Iran. This weekend’s visit to Tehran by Omani Foreign Minister Yousef Bin-Alawi was widely viewed in that context. He was also apparently asked by the UK to broker a deal for the release of the Iranian tanker impounded by British forces in the Strait of Gibraltar in exchange for the British ship later seized by the Iranians in the Gulf. It would only make sense, in that case, for the Saudis to reopen their own channels of communication to Tehran as well. They must know, at some level, that the US vendetta against Iran is largely being driven by Israel for its own purposes, and that the Iranian ‘bogeyman’ is being used to frighten them and milk their coffers.

They must also know that it is they and their Gulf allies, as well as the Iranians, who will suffer most if war breaks out – in terms of the destruction wreaked on their cities, infrastructure and inhabitants – not the Americans who are pursuing this course in the service of Israeli interests.

We can only hope that reason is beginning to prevail in this conflict, which Israel and its allies in the US generated and are dong their best to stoke. It would be good news for everyone if that were to happen.