Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has taken a more conciliatory public stance towards Tehran, trying to balance long-held animosity with economic considerations and bridge differences with the United States over how to tackle Iran’s regional behavior.
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have exacerbated over the Yemen war, where an Tehran-aligned group has increased attacks on the Kingdom even as Riyadh tried to lure foreign investment. Strains between the two Gulf powerhouses also grew after a 2019 assault on Saudi oil plants that Saudi Arabia blamed on Iran, a charge Tehran denies.
While reiterating that the Kingdom has a problem with Tehran’s “negative behavior”, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in an interview aired late Tuesday that Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia wanted a good relationship with Shi’ite Iran.
“We do not want for Iran to be in a difficult situation, on the contrary we want Iran to prosper and grow. We have interests in Iran and they have interests in the Kingdom to propel the region and the world to growth and prosperity,” the Crown Prince said.
That contrasts with remarks by Prince Mohammed in 2017, after becoming crown prince, in which he called the supreme leader of Iran “the new Hitler of the Middle East”. Earlier that year, he said any contest for influence between the arch-rivals ought take place “inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia”.
With U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration taking a more stringent stance on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and pressing it to end the Yemen war, the prince has moved to show he is a valuable partner able to help stabilize the region, according to diplomats.
Saudi and Iranian officials held direct talks this month, six years after cutting diplomatic ties, about Yemen and the 2015 nuclear accord between global powers and Iran, which Saudi Arabia opposed for not tackling Iran’s missile program and regional proxies.
“Saudi Arabia desperately needs to find a way out of a (Yemen) war that is both unpopular and unwinnable,” said Elisabeth Kendall, senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Oxford’s Pembroke College.
Riyadh has called on global powers trying to bring both Washington and Tehran back into full compliance with the nuclear pact to reach a tougher agreement of longer duration, in talks in Vienna.
Madawi Al-Rasheed, visiting professor at the LSE Middle East Center, said impressing Biden was one reason why Prince Mohammed “changed his confrontational discourse” on Tehran.
The prince, who pledged to crush the Houthis when Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen in 2015 at the head of a military coalition, also softened his rhetoric towards the Tehran-aligned movement that has launched missile and drone attacks on the Kingdom.
“There is no doubt the Houthis have strong ties with the Iranian regime, but they are Yemenis with Arab instincts,” he said, calling on the group to accept a ceasefire deal.