In a rare and in-depth interview on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said his country is not opposed to talks with Tehran to discuss ways the two regional powers could co-operate in the interests of peace. The decades-old rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been exacerbated in recent years by the proliferation of Iranian-backed militant groups across the Middle East, including on Saudi Arabia’s own border, in Yemen. As the Crown Prince noted, these groups present the primary roadblock to progress in bilateral relations.
For Iran to give them up will be difficult. On Tuesday Gen Kenneth McKenzie, head of the US military's Central Command, described a nuclear deal signed between western powers and Iran in 2015 as a "flawed document" but better than nothing, encouraging a collective response to the threat posed by Tehran. It was, unfortunately, not inclusive. Without the participation of Arab allies, the deal's collaborative intentions were never realised. The Biden administration could make the same mistake in its desire to return to a similar arrangement as soon as possible.
In 2015, the most obvious threat to global security was Iran's nuclear programme. Six years later, it is much more. Tehran's expansionism, proxies, militia networks, ballistic missile programme and asymmetric warfare flourished because the deal on the nuclear issue. Permanent members of the UN Security Council must acknowledge this new and dangerous reality. If current talks with Iran in Vienna are to make the world safer, leaders must demand that Tehran closes its Pandora's box.
Iran will be unwilling to give up these strategic wins. They are, however, built on shaky ground. Tehran's network of militias has been weakened by the power vacuum that followed America's killing of senior IRGC commander Qassem Suleimani last year. The absence of his emblematic presence has loosened a once infamously well organised command structure. Gen McKenzie's statement on Tuesday even suggested that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is not entirely in control of the IRGC. Recent audio leaks of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif cause further confusion.
This is not something to be celebrated. Yesterday the US Navy released footage of what it claimed to be IRGC boats harassing its ships in the Gulf. This strategic disintegration could lead to Iranian forces overstepping the mark. But a security breakdown also leaves Tehran vulnerable. The assassination of a leading atomic scientist and a separate explosion at its Natanz facility have rocked the country's nuclear programme, key leverage that it has over regional nations.
Crown Prince Mohammed's latest interview summarised the many ways Saudi Arabia is changing at home and abroad, with a clear strategic vision. Riyadh wants détente with Tehran, but only if it is built on a genuine effort to curtail its militant and aggressive activities. Iranian leaders, wherever power truly lies, must realise the limits of a diplomatic model built on aggression. Until then, peace is difficult to attain, even with all the goodwill in the world.