Two archrivals in the Middle East seem to be making surprising progress in rebuilding relations. This could possibly help end the war in Yemen, and prove to be the most dramatic step in a wave of de-escalation in the region.

In 2020, negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Iran began quietly with three informal but substantial meetings involving senior security and intelligence officials from Riyadh and Tehran. A fourth round was reportedly held on September 21 at Baghdad international airport, with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi playing host to the head of Iran’s national Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, and the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir. Afterwards, Saudi Arabia — the more cautious party — designated them official direct talks. 

The negotiations have focused on finding a formula for Riyadh to end its involvement in the Yemen war, which is largely being fought between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-supported and internationally-recognized government. After intervening in the conflict in 2015, Saudi Arabia has been bogged down in a quagmire that its Yemeni allies are plainly not going to win.

For well over a year, Riyadh has been looking for a way out. Saudi Arabia needs the Houthis to commit to stopping rocket attacks on Saudi cities and cross-border raids. For its part, Iran has enjoyed bedeviling the Saudis in a conflict to which it attaches limited strategic importance. But it could still prove embarrassing. While Iran may make diplomatic commitments, it still has to prove it has real influence over the Houthis — at least enough to make them sit down for peace talks.

The limitations and doubts will be hard to overcome. However, the efforts are nevertheless welcome in the regional wave of de-escalation that began in the summer of 2020. Indeed, Baghdad’s participation is emblematic. Iraq is promoting the dialogue not just to cool down the neighborhood but also to secure its own domestic stability, which is riven by the politics of its Shiites and Sunnis, the dominant Muslim denominations in Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively.

Contributing to the talks are two important factors: Virtually all major regional powers — with the possible exception of Israel — are overextended and exhausted. Their military confrontations have passed the point of diminishing returns. The war in Libya is at a bloody stalemate. The genocidal Syrian regime is victorious. Islamic State is defeated. Meanwhile, Iraq has reached an equilibrium not unlike Lebanon’s — unsteady but predictable. In all these cases, and others, there is little further to be gained by outside parties seeking influence and regional clout. Further fighting by way of proxies is no longer strategically beneficial to them.

American allies like Saudi Arabia have become increasingly doubtful that Washington will buttress their security in the event of broader conflict. Meanwhile, U.S. adversaries like Iran have suffered significant weakening, particularly from ongoing economic crises, the COVID-19 pandemic as well as social and political unrest.

These conditions have encouraged diplomatic outreach among the regional powers. Predictable breakthroughs like the Abraham Accords between Israel, on one hand, and the United Arab Emirates and three other Arab countries, on the other, have been matched by genuinely surprising ones such as thaws between Egypt and Turkey and between the UAE and Qatar. Now, even Saudi-Iranian talks — inconceivable a couple of years ago — are becoming viable.

It remains to be seen whether the negotiations will really help end the war in Yemen or produce a restoration of Saudi-Iranian relations, which were severed in deep acrimony in January 2016. But already the temperatures are cooling, most notably among pro-Iranian militia groups in Iraq. Regional media on both sides have moderated the way they characterize each other.

If all this leads to a real, if limited, rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh, that would be great news for a turbulent part of the world.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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