Geopolitics Global Agenda Non-Military Security

From old foes to new partners? The implications of Iran-Saudi Arabia Rapprochement

Štefan Talarovič

On 10 March, Saudi Arabia and Iran announced a ground-breaking agreement to normalize diplomatic relations and reopen embassies in both countries. The bilateral talks were brokered by China and in doing so the traditional power rivals in the Middle East and major oil producers bypassed the United States. The agreement could fundamentally change the dynamics in the region and influence the course of the war in Yemen or the negotiations on the so-called Iran nuclear deal.

The announcement of the resumption of diplomatic relations came after four days of talks in Beijing. Iran was represented at the talks by Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Saudi Arabia by its National Security Adviser Musaed Bin Mohammed Al-Aiban, and China by former Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The convergence of the centres of the different branches of Islam comes at a time when Riyadh’s intervention in Yemen is at a standstill, and Tehran is grappling with the critical socio-economic situation in the country.

Over the next two months, the two countries are expected to hold discussions on the formation of diplomatic missions, ending a seven-year rift sparked by the attacks on the Sunni kingdom’s embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad by Iranian demonstrators. The assaults occurred in response to the execution of the influential Shiite Ayatollah Nimr Baqir al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia in January 2016. His longstanding criticism of the government in Riyadh, which he accused of persecuting the Shia minority in the Eastern Province while also supporting the region’s secessionist aspirations, led to his death sentence. The 2019 attacks on tankers and oil fields in the Gulf, for which Saudi Arabia accused Iran of being responsible, also contributed to the escalation of the conflict. In recent years, cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia by Yemen’s Houthi rebels have complicated mutual relations as Houthis have been using advanced Iranian technology, including missiles and drones.

The normalization of relations was positively received by other Arab countries, including Iraq and Oman, which attempted to mediate negotiations in the past. Baghdad has faced decades of sectarian violence, partly caused by schisms in the Islamic world. The recent development between Iran and Saudi Arabia may thus help to ease tensions inside the country. However, the news of rapprochement was cautiously greeted by Washington as the USA has already imposed a series of tough economic sanctions on Iran. Saudi Arabia could therefore be reluctant to forge more significant economic cooperation, analysts say.

Despite Iran and Saudi Arabia’s commitment to mutual respect for each other’s national sovereignty and the activation of the 2001 security cooperation treaty, it is difficult to predict whether the agreement will have a positive impact on the situation in Yemen, which has been plagued by a bloody civil war for eight years. The chances of peace may be muddled by Tehran’s demand that Riyadh should end its military involvement on the side of the Yemeni government-in-exile and recognize the legitimacy of the Shiite Houthi movement, which is firmly consolidated around the capital Sanaa. Attention will also turn to future developments in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, which are seen as other proxy conflicts of their geopolitical rivalry in the Middle East.

The agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia is also a major success for Beijing. Thanks to its successful role as a mediator, the communist regime’s presentation as a soft power on the international stage has become more visible. At the same time, China has consolidated its influence in the Persian Gulf, a key source of mineral resources and a trade route of global importance, as the largest trading partner of two regional powers. The diplomatic ‘rapprochement’ may also benefit Russia, which is a close ally of the Iranian theocracy, including a robust arms cooperation, and with which the Saudis also maintain intensive trade relations.

The conservative press in Iran hailed the news as a victory over the US and Israel after months of the world press being flooded with reports of the violent suppression and persecution of women’s rights demonstrators in response to the death of Mahsa Amin. The bilateral agreement could serve as a boost to the 2015 deal on Iran’s nuclear programme, which was denounced three years later by the administration of US President Donald Trump.

Saudi diplomacy’s autonomy at the Beijing talks points to a continuing trend of a more independent foreign policy by the Gulf monarchies. Although they are perceived as traditional regional allies of the United States, they also adopted a largely neutral stance regarding Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in February 2022. Beijing’s and Moscow’s orientation towards the broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region may herald the deepening multipolar nature of international relations, in which an ambiguous balance of power will be a catalyst for the emergence of new security challenges.

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