The fallout from Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance is the latest political misstep from Saudi Arabia that will geopolitically benefit Iran. In the face of forthcoming US oil sanctions and coordinated pressure from the US, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel strategy– and as the EU attempts to preserve the nuclear accord after Washington’s withdrawal – the opportunity could not come at a better time for Tehran.
Iran has repeatedly seized on Saudi miscalculations to gain leverage and protect itself from regional isolation.
In Yemen, since 2015, Tehran has built a robust relationship with the Houthis opposing the Saudi coalition, providing more training and equipment than was expected at the outset of the war. In Lebanon, Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy, demonstrated solidarity with Prime Minister Saad Hariri when he was briefly detained by Saudi Arabia, and was subsequently strengthened after Hariri returned to Beirut. In the Qatar crisis, Tehran immediately provided food and travel aid to temper the impact of the blockade on Doha.
How will Iran try to use this latest crisis to its advantage? Most easily, it can reap the gains of international criticism against its longstanding regional antagonist by simply doing and saying nothing. It can allow this situation to distract from arguments over the nuclear agreement, Iran’s interference throughout the region and its ballistic missile programme. And it can watch as the case potentially weakens US-Saudi relations and by consequence fractures the wider regional coordination effort to contain Iran.
Tehran also stands to benefit from any upward movement in oil prices. Saudi Arabia has already threatened to retaliate against sanctions by using its leverage here, and oil prices have accordingly risen, thereby benefitting Iran in its last few weeks of oil sales before sanctions take effect. Oil markets are already tight in advance of the November sanctions; the Trump administration was planning on relying on Riyadh to make up for the Iranian shortfall. Such uncertainty could also enable Iran to continue to sell its oil at discounts after sanctions are imposed.
Finally, Iran will try to use this crisis to quietly rebuild bridges with Saudi Arabia, seeking ultimately to dial down tensions. In recent years, Tehran has underestimated the effectiveness of Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran agenda, focusing instead on larger security challenges stemming from the United States and Israel. After witnessing Riyadh’s effective lobbying against the Iran nuclear agreement and role in assembling the anti-Iran regional coalition, Iranian policy-makers now recognize that they need a more effective Saudi policy.
Before this crisis, Riyadh continued to publically rebuff Iranian outreach efforts. It remains to be seen if Tehran can turn this tide and convince Saudi Arabia to recalculate.