16 October 2019
- Iran’s restraint over alleged tanker attack likely in response to Saudi diplomatic overtures, but hardliners will continue to act assertively in region
- Mutual mistrust and regional tensions will challenge Pakistan’s ability to facilitate channels of communication between Tehran and Riyadh
- Hardliners will be emboldened to target Saudi infrastructure should Tehran attribute blame to Riyadh for tanker attack
Parliamentary Speaker Larijani said on 2 October that Tehran was open to talks with Riyadh after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) claimed the previous day that Riyadh was seeking a “peaceful” diplomatic solution to bilateral tensions with Iran. Foreign Minister Zarif also stated on 8 October that Tehran would engage with Riyadh if it stopped “killing people”. Three days later, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan claimed that Islamabad had scheduled visits to Tehran and Riyadh on 12 and 15 October respectively in an effort to facilitate talks between the regional rivals. Separately, Iranian state-owned media reported on 11 October that an Iranian-flagged tanker, named Sabiti, had been struck by two missiles while sailing off Saudi Arabia’s coast near Jeddah. Details of the incident remain unclear and Iranian officials have refrained from attributing blame or naming those it suspects of being responsible.
Hardliners in Tehran have directed a series of increasingly provocative activities in the region since the US pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) last year and reimposed sanctions. This has included stepping up the harassment of commercial shipping vessels in the Gulf since May to demonstrate Iran’s ability to disrupt global oil supplies and pressure the JCPOA’s European signatories to do more to ease the effects of US sanctions. Saudi Arabia, a key regional backer of Washington’s sanctions campaign and major oil producer, has thus been targeted by Iranian-linked forces on several occasions, including the drone strikes against the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities on 14 September that caused significant damage and disruptions to 5% of global oil production. While the attack on the Sabiti remains unconfirmed, it is plausible that the missiles were launched from Saudi Arabia in response to last month’s strikes. However, this would not indicate the start of a broader Saudi campaign to target Iranian maritime interests due to the risks of escalation, and particularly given MbS’s recent diplomatic overtures to Tehran.
Riyadh has demonstrated an unwillingness to respond militarily to the attacks at Abqaiq and Khurais, likely assessing that such measures would expose the Kingdom to more significant Iran-directed attacks against its energy sector as well as destabilise the region. MbS’s overtures thus reflect his perception that diplomatic engagement is a more credible means to safeguard Saudi infrastructure. For its part, Iran is keen to ease the effects of US sanctions, which have severely damaged the economy, including reducing oil output to below 100,000 barrels per day in July. Tehran is likely to see engagement with Riyadh – a key US ally – as a step towards this. It is therefore plausible that Iran is willing to allow Pakistan – which enjoys good relations with both regional rivals – to facilitate channels of communication with Saudi Arabia.
Indeed, Tehran’s muted response to the alleged missile strikes on the Sabiti and the fact that it has not directly blamed Riyadh indicate Iran wants to avoid disrupting possible Islamabad-brokered diplomatic engagement. The prospect of talks, particularly amid heightened regional tensions, is a significant development and suggests channels of communication could be established to address future disputes. For now, however, deep mistrust and elevated tensions mean any progress in Iran-Saudi talks, if any indeed take place, will be severely limited. Moreover, Iranian hardliners will perceive Riyadh’s overtures as evidence that their provocative regional activities can be successful in forcing Washington’s allies to offer concessions to Tehran. As such, further Iran-linked attacks in the Gulf are likely in the next few weeks, which could trigger additional US sanctions and will further undermine the likelihood of productive talks.
Diplomatic engagement between Iran and Saudi Arabia is therefore unlikely to be sustained over the next few months. Both sides are likely to blame each other for the failure of Pakistan’s efforts to broker a rapprochement, and at that point Tehran may also produce what it claims is evidence of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the attack against the Sabiti. This would embolden hardliners to conduct direct attacks on commercial interests in the Gulf region, while also raising the possibility of further strikes on Saudi oil infrastructure. That said, attacks against energy interests in Saudi Arabia will remain infrequent as hardliners will want to avoid provoking a significant confrontation with Riyadh.