EVER since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, ties between Tehran and Riyadh have been increasingly strained, affecting sectarian relations across the Muslim world. While before 1979 both were in the pro-American camp, after the fall of the Shah Iran embarked on a journey to ‘export’ its revolution, which obviously did not sit well with the Arab monarchies. After over four decades, the relationship remains tense, with proxy conflicts between the two being fought in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. However, despite the starkly different ideologies both camps adhere to, coexistence is possible, should there be a desire to live with each other. A small example of this was recently witnessed in Iraq, where reportedly a low-level meeting between Saudi and Iranian officials was held to discuss the Yemen quagmire. There have been no relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran since the former broke off ties in 2016 after Riyadh executed Shaikh Baqir al-Nimr, a Saudi Shia cleric.

Though the talks in Iraq do not constitute a major breakthrough, they do prove that if both sides wish, engagement is possible. Saudi Arabia is quite keen to extricate itself from the Yemen crisis, where it has failed to dislodge the Iran-allied Houthis. Indeed, these parleys should be built on and carried forward, and perhaps the scope can later be expanded to the greater Saudi-Iranian rivalry playing out across the Middle East. Iraq can be a good interlocutor as it has relations with both sides; elements within its Shia-majority government have deep ties to Tehran, while as an Arab state Iraq shares cultural bonds with the Saudis. In fact it is desirable for states in the region to sort out their own issues. Military invasions and interventions by outside powers have only led to increased misery in the Middle East, while Israel is also keen to play up confessional and ethnic differences. If Riyadh and Tehran persist, they can succeed in establishing cordial relations and putting the hostility of the past behind them.

Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2021

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