The Impact of Iranian-Saudi Talks on the Yemen War


Thu, 28-10-2021 07:27 PM, Aden

Farida Ahmed (South24)

The Middle East has witnessed a number of notable changes in the political and diplomatic climate, especially  developing the normalization of the Iranian- Saudi relationships 5 years after cutting the ties between the two countries since 2016 due to some reasons top of which was the Saudi authorities execution of the Shiite cleric Nimr Al Nimr, and the ensuing escalation through attacking the Saudi Embassy and Consulate in Tehran by Iranian demonstrators.1 Moreover, the KSA accused Iran of playing a role that aims to destabilize its security by supporting the Houthis. This subsequently led to growing tension and cutting the diplomatic ties between them.

The move to make informal and quiet talks between the two regional central states seems a positive one as things head to less escalation. Since 2020, three negotiation tours between Iran and the KSA have been held in Iraq with the participation of senior security and intelligence officials in both countries. The fourth and the latest tour was held on September 21st in the International Baghdad Airport when the Iraqi PM Mustafa Al Kadhimi host Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, and Adel Al Jubeir, the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs.2 the two parties seem ready for holding other tours to soft the sharp tension. This could make some progress in the political and diplomatic ties and perhaps beyond that especially in the case of connecting several issues in the region with the Saudi and Iranian files such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Any kind of understanding to open a new page would undoubtedly impact the Yemeni file due to the fact that the Houthis, who control Sanaa and attack the KSA with drones and missiles, are backed by Iran. This constitutes a real source of concern for Riyadh, especially that Tehran finances this group, according to confirmations by internal and external sources, in addition to the concern of the entire Gulf region towards Iran’s nuclear program and its missile capabilities. 

However, some questions and doubts are raised between each tour and another about how serious each party is towards the other, and whether there are true intentions for security and peace in the region. Some observers believe that the matter is related to the international conviction that it is the right time to end some outstanding files in the Gulf region and to begin building close cooperation relationships among the states to focus on the future. Washington welcomed the talks between Riyadh and Tehran 3, as well as London and the United Nations which described the understandings between the two parties as being very important.4

Naturally, all these indicators look good to fix the tense relationships. It is clear that Ibrahim Raisi’s ascension to power in June 2021 has been an opportunity to restore the relationships between the two countries and move the stagnant water. Although the Iranian president lacks the political experience as throughout his professional career, he held positions related to the judicial authority. As for his predecessor Hassan Rouhani, he tried to present a number of initiatives toward which the silence was the only Saudi response in most cases, For example, Rouhani proposed the Hormuz Peace Initiative in September 2019 just 8 days after the attack on Saudi oil facilities, which led to a temporary halt of oil production(about 5.7 million oil barrels).5 The initiative stressed on the importance of the collective cooperation inside the Gulf Region for the regional security. However, according to the then Iranian Foreign Minister, Jawad zarif, there were no positive Saudi indicators to approve the tension and reduce the initiative.6

Possible motives for the understandings 

As for Iran, it is well aware that improving its relationships with the KSA would mean better ties with the Arab world which for years has remained dubious towards Tehran. Both countries are influential islamic powers in the region, so, this will have a great impact on the whole Arab and Islamic states, especially that the Iranian policy became more pragmatic and less ideological and puts the considerations of its security and national interests as a top priority. Moreover, Tehran views the prevalent polarization in the Arab world by the major powers as a threat to its national security. Therefore, the positive negotiation tracks and the joint solutions could act as a fortified shield for Iran if there is a consensus between it and a number of states it differs with, especially the KSA. Iran paid a heavy price when it intervened in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq which exacerbated its tense relationships with the international community. So, it is more likely that this rapprochement with the KSA and the Gulf states in general will help Tehran to improve its regional and international image and could relieve some sanctions imposed against it by Washington in the Trump era.

Similarly, the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement could help in reducing the internal pressure against Iran as it faces very hard economic, social, health, and security challenges along with continuing protests against the worsening living conditions and the water shortage. For example, in July, several popular demonstrations erupted in Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan in Southwest Iran, which has a big percentage of Arab residents. Iranian officials accuse the KSA and a number of states of being behind those events.7

Additionally, the continuing friendly understandings between the two sides could lead to reducing the armament race in the region. The KSA and other Gulf states seek increasing their military capabilities as they always feel that Iran is the source of continuing threats. This seems suitable for Iran, as in both cases, whether the KSA has super military capabilities or not, it won't constitute a possible threat for Tehran due to the power imbalance given the Tehran’s nuclear power with the exception of Israel and apart from the external support Riyadh could enjoy in case of involving into a direct confrontation with its rival.

As for the KSA, it is a good deal to engage in a friendly relationship with a country which threatens the region by its nuclear program in which the uranium enrichment rate reached 60%, as well as manufacturing and importing ballistic missiles and drones that target Riyadh through Iran’s proxies in Yemen (the Houthis). Riyadh believes that the rapprochement with its neighbors is the best option. Relying on the American security umbrella is no longer useful, as shown in the US’s recent withdrawal from Afghanistan, in addition to the Biden Administration’s ending its military support of the Arab Coalition in Yemen.

While Tehran believes that Riyadh has been involved in stirring internal chaos inside its territories, the KSA accuses Iran of attempting to destabilize its inner security by standing behind some disturbances in the Saudi Eastern Province every now and then through backing the Shiite population there. The two parties are probably aspiring to put an end for that through a consensus process.

There is no doubt that security is the biggest basic motive for the KSA which likely wants to test Iran if it will use its influence over the Houthis to stop their military activities towards it. The recent talks between the two parties in Baghdad largely focused on the Yemeni file. This is enhanced by the change of results on the ground by excluding the KSA’s possibility of winning the Yemeni War through military means, especially that the Houthis have extended their control over the fronts run by the internationally recognized Hadi Government in which its decisions making is controlled by the Islah Party (the Muslim Brotherhood) in Yemen.

Impact on Yemen

The regional central actors, represented in the KSA and Iran, the biggest two poles in the Gulf region, tried to change their diplomatic and political dynamics in the regional and the international scenes. Yemen has been the most prominent file on the negotiation table, but there is a question about if these understandings are able to end the Yemeni War? And how? Especially if we take into consideration that resolving the matter militarily is an excluded option and has not been among the top Saudi priorities at least. The whole war turned to be a burden due to the military failures by the fronts run by the Hadi Government. On the other hand, it seems that the parties are heading to resolve the matter politically in the coming months. Some observers believe that the way of getting Yemen out of this deadlock is putting it in a balanced game consisting of three main parties: the US, Iran and the KSA, and adopting a policy of interest (give and take) and determining who will give and what it will take in return for that. 

Illustration (south24 Center)

The US seeks to end the Yemeni War by different means, as shown in its appointment of a Special Envoy to Yemen. Washington can put the Yemeni file on the big nuclear table and negotiate with Iran over that by granting the Houthis concessions to engage into a political settlement that contributes in enhancing their position and dealing with their existence in North Yemen as a de facto matter in return for some concessions provided by Iran in the nuclear file. Parallelly, Iran can grant the KSA the security and the protection against any Houthi threat, in return for reducing the Saudi intervention level in Yemen to its minimum levels. Naturally, this equation between the two poles of the region does not have sufficient guarantees, especially from Tehran. Once the Houthis will be empowered in return for commitment not to threaten the Saudi security, observers believe that the Houthis could likely turn against any settlement, especially if there is a regression in the understandings between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

High-level sources confirmed to “South24” that the talks between Riyadh and Tehran have not yet reached a breakthrough in spite of the optimism and big international support of them. Iran puts conditions which are not among the current Saudi priorities such as opening the embassies and consulates, restoring the diplomatic relationships and other formalities. Riyadh is more interested in its security, including the drones and ballistic threats which target their territories by the Houthis. Observers believe that Iran's handling of the mutual negotiations through delaying discussing important security and defensive matters does not pave the way to build trust between the two parties and reveals a kind of Procrastination to give the Houthis more opportunity to advance on the ground as well as promoting for higher negotiation points.

Meanwhile, the recent developments in South Yemen, including, according to a high-profile source to “South24”, the sudden withdrawal of Saudi troops on Tuesday from Shabwa which is controlled by Islah are relevant with the Riyadh-Tehran talks by reducing the Saudi presence in some regions in light of the above-mentioned equation balance according to some observers. Others believe that the reason for withdrawal is the lack of trust towards the Islah authority in Shabwa, especially that political sources talk about a plan to target the Ataq Airport, the main headquarter of the Saudi troops and other military locations. Moreover, there are growing accusations of the local authorities of “collusion” with the Houthis in handing over the districts of Beihan.

The connection of the Yemeni file with each of the American and Saudi talks with Iran will likely serve the interest of the Houthis which will be encouraged to make military advances on the ground, and boost their negotiation opportunities with the rival local parties. In return for Iranian concession to Washington or Riyadh regarding the main issues, the maximum gains which Tehran can secure is taking concessions from the US and the KSA to accept its presence in Yemen as a defacto matter through its local arm in the Red Sea, “Houthi militias”.

On the other hand, there are more international diplomatic voices8 which call for overriding the Resolution 2216 by which the KSA was able to intervene in Yemen. This could besiege the Saudi influence in Yemen, and practically put an end to its presence. In contrast, the Kingdom’s rivals could boast their presence opportunities. 

In light of the continuing Houthi threats, and the Saudi vanishing trust in the Yemeni parties controlling the Hadi Government- especially the Muslim Brotherhood”, observers believe that the only remaining option for the KSA to maintain the gains won by the Coalition, throughout the last 7 years-  is to support the active parties in South Yemen such as the STC.

Researcher on political affairs with South24 Center

- Photo: Irani Media


1-Storming the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and setting it on fire (
2- Washington Post: Saudi Arabia is not confident that the US will protect it in the future – (
3- Washington welcomes news of direct talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia - (
4-The UN: the talks between Iran and the KSA is very important - (Sputnik Arabic)
5- The details of Hormuz Peace Initiative, the main topic of Rouhani Speech in front of the United Nations - (
6- Japan: negotiations with Russia moves to another stage - (
7-Iran: the KSA, the US, Britain and Israel are behind the Khuzestan Protests - (
8- London: Settlement in Yemen needs a new Un resolution -(

IranSaudi ArbiaIran Saudi TalkYemen WarHouthisSouth YemenSTCUAE