Rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran

Published : 28 Mar 2023 08:37 PM

The international reaction to the diplomatic rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the second week of March- after seven years of tension that was threatening stability and security in the Middle East - through restoration of diplomatic ties has been very positive. The fact that there has also been an invitation extended to the President of Iran to visit Saudi Arabia has been welcomed.

In talks hosted by China, the two countries have agreed to reopen their embassies and missions in the next two months. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has cited their top diplomat Wang Yi as saying that China will continue to play a constructive role in global hot spots and demonstrate its “responsibility” as a leading nation.

The media has reported that Saudi Arabia kept Washington informed of its talks with Iran to restore diplomatic relations but the United States was not directly involved, White House spokesman John Kirby has also observed that “The Saudis did keep us informed about these talks that they were having, just as we keep them informed on our engagements, but we weren’t directly involved.”

China stepped in at a time when the US views Iran as a major threat to the region and yet its own relations with longtime ally Saudi Arabia have frayed. China's shock success at bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran together is now being seen as a challenge to the United States' long standing role as the key outside power broker in the Middle East.

Beijing's persuading archrivals Riyadh and Tehran to reestablish diplomatic relations seems to have upstaged the United States at a time when Washington appears to be going through a difficult time in being able to restrain or intervene in the political tensions in Israel over the Netanyahu government's sharp-right turn, which has inflamed Palestinians.

China, meanwhile through its role, has also reaffirmed its opposition to unilateral sanctions by the United States against Iran as the Chinese and Iranian foreign ministers announced the launch of a 25-year cooperation agreement aimed at strengthening economic and political ties. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also backed efforts to revive a 2015 nuclear deal between major powers and Iran. Wang, who is also State Councillor in China, has noted that the US bore primary responsibility for the ongoing difficulties with Iran, having unilaterally withdrawn from a 2015 nuclear deal between the major powers and Iran.

This evolving dynamic has seen a more positive approach from the United States. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has observed that "Anything that can help reduce tensions, avoid conflict and deter in any way dangerous and destabilizing actions by Iran is a good thing." The UN has also observed that the pact opens the door to peace in Yemen.

Middle Eastern countries are hoping

 that a friendlier relationship between

 Saudi Arabia and Iran could 

eventually lead to positive 

consequences in that region

 Iraq, which had hosted several rounds of reconciliation talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran since 2021 has welcomed the agreement- “A new page has been opened in diplomatic relations between the two countries,” said a statement from the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Anwar Gargash, a diplomatic adviser to the UAE has also welcomed the agreement and hailed China’s role in reaching it. “The UAE believes in the importance of positive communication and dialogue among the countries of the region towards consolidating the concepts of good neighborliness and starting from a common ground to build a more stable future for all,” he wrote on Twitter. The chief negotiator for Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement has remarked that diplomatic ties between countries in the Middle East are needed and that “the region needs the resumption of normal ties between its countries for the Islamic nation to reclaim its lost security as a result of foreign interference.” Oman has also welcomed the resumption of diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Tehran and its Foreign Ministry has stated “this is a win-win for everyone and will benefit regional and global security.” Omani Foreign Minister Badr Albusaidi has also observed- “we hope in the longer term there’s also potential for increasing economic benefits for all.”Qatar Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, who also acts as foreign minister, has called the Foreign Ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia to welcome the deal. Egypt’s foreign ministry has expressed hopes that the agreement will contribute to easing of tension in the region, said Egypt’s foreign ministry. 

However strategic analysts have indirectly tried to minimize Beijing's role in the region, saying it is far from supplanting the United States as much of the Middle East still sits under the Pentagon's security umbrella.

Nevertheless analysts have noted that the Saudi-Iran rapprochement could threaten the ultimate goal of the US-crafted Abraham Accords: Arab powerhouse Saudi Arabia's recognition of Israel after decades of refusal. It may be also mentioned here that in negotiations driven by Washington, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain launched the process of recognizing Israel in 2020, and since then Morocco and Sudan have followed suit. But Riyadh has resisted pressure to do so as well. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times reported that the Saudis want security guarantees from Washington and assistance on their civilian nuclear program in exchange for recognizing the Jewish state. Meanwhile, Biden's hopes to break some ice with Iran by restoring the 2015 deal that limited its nuclear program -- abandoned by predecessor president Donald Trump -- have gone nowhere. Instead, Tehran has apparently moved further away, supporting Russia on the subject of Ukraine.

Deutsche Welle has made some interesting observations pertaining to this evolving dynamic. They have pointed out that for many observers of the region the announcement came as a surprise. This was so because of the years of rivalry and tensions that had existed between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is clear now that apparently they want to start a new phase in their relationship. It has also been observed that the decision is one that could have both regional and international impacts because in many areas and on many fronts, the two nations are opponents and have squared off against one another, both indirectly and directly. 

In this context the world has followed how the two countries have supported opposing parties in various conflicts: for example, in Syria during the civil war there, and to this day in the war in Yemen. In Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain, they have also become involved in local politics on opposing sides. It has also been claimed that at one point of time the Saudi leadership had held Iran responsible for some of the rocket attacks on its oil facilities in the Persian Gulf.

As such, Europe will carefully monitor this evolving scenario in a paradigm within which Saudi Arabia and Iran say they want to open a new chapter on their relationship. Deutsche Welle has added that there are good reasons for both to do so. In their attacks on one another, they have been hurting themselves more than their foe in both political and economic terms. Additionally, neither side had been able to gain any real supremacy over the other.

In this regard Sebastian Sons, a senior researcher and Saudi Arabia expert at the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO), a German think tank has observed that this change in approach actually “started two years ago when representatives from Saudi Arabia and Iran started negotiating behind closed doors to come to an arrangement with Iran”. Tehran apparently also saw things from a similar perspective.

Another German analyst Marcus Schneider, who heads the Friedrich Ebert Foundation's Regional Peace and Security Project in Beirut has noted that the “new deal is a diplomatic success for the Iranians” and this measure would help them to " step out of international isolation at a time when its relations with the West are worsening, going from one low point to the next." It has also been suggested that in addition to increasing international isolation there has also been the other factor of Iran's liking the fact that the Chinese apparently helped to broker this new detente.

It needs to be also noted here that Chinese relations with Iran have been good for some time now. In early 2021, both sides signed a trade deal that saw China agree to invest around US Dollar 400 billion in Iran over the next 25 years.  Meanwhile, the other side of the coin has seen the Saudis; according to Deutsche Welle have also hedged their bets and turned away slightly from their traditional ally, the US, for the past few years. This, according to Deutsche Welle analysts, probably happened because American leaders have been critical of the Saudis' human rights record and were perceived as not being supportive enough when oil facilities were attacked, allegedly by Yemeni rebels firing Iranian-made rockets.  

It may be recalled that reference to this dimension of Saudi perspective of not necessarily doing US bidding  was demonstrated last September, at a meeting of oil producing nations in the OPEC+ group. The Saudis chose not to do as the US asked and did not lobby to increase production to bring down oil prices. This happened but according to analyst Sons it does not indicate that the Saudis are planning a complete change of course or breaking away from Western partners altogether, Sons has also noted: " you have to see that rapprochement with Iran is a very high priority in Riyadh."

As underlined through their response Middle Eastern countries are hoping that a friendlier relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran could eventually lead to positive consequences in that region- particularly in Iraq, where Iran supports militia groups that have a large, disruptive influence on the local government and also in Lebanon, where Iran openly supports the organization Hezbollah, which plays a meaningful role in that country's politics.

Analyst Schneider has also explained that it is possible that the new relationship between the Saudis and Iranians might have surfaced because of what is gradually being revealed about nuclear developments in Iran and the prospect of reaching the Iran nuclear deal. Strategists are suggesting that after years of trying to come to an arrangement with Iran that would see the country abandoning any attempt to produce its own nuclear weapons in return for sanctions being lifted, the deal increasingly looks impossible. The Qatar-connected publication Al Araby Al-Jadeed has used such a negative possibility to observe that many in Saudi Arabia and some other neighboring Gulf countries now think that by having a pre-emptive agreement, as has taken place between Saudi Arabia and Iran- prevention will be better than cure- in case of potential retaliation.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance