Saturday, November 4, 2023

Iran and Saudi Arabia to Restore Ties: What’s Next?


After a seven-year rift, Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations in a deal brokered by China. The agreement, signed in Beijing on Friday, stipulates that the two countries’ foreign ministers will meet to discuss diplomatic missions within two months. While the deal has been welcomed in Iran as a step towards reducing tensions and bolstering regional security, building on it will prove the main challenge, according to analysts. Conservative media outlets in Iran have focused on how the deal signals a “defeat” for the United States and Israel.

The seven-year rift began in 2016 when Riyadh cut political relations with Tehran after its diplomatic missions were attacked by demonstrators. The invasion of the missions came after the Sunni-majority kingdom executed a prominent Shia Muslim leader. At that time, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei denounced Saudi leaders. However, none of the Iranian officials or state-linked media are now openly displaying pessimism as talks that began in April 2021 finally bore fruit following efforts by China’s President Xi Jinping, who visited Saudi Arabia in December and hosted Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi last month.

The agreement is a positive development but is only one step of many, according to Tehran-based political analyst Diako Hosseini. He believes that Saudi Arabia will likely still be cautious in economic dealings with Iran because it does not want to be exposed to US sanctions. Furthermore, normalisation does not necessarily mean that the two sides trust each other. Reducing tensions in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq can still entail wide-ranging interests for both sides. Ending the eight-year war in Yemen, where Iran and Saudi Arabia support opposing sides, could be the most important eventual outcome of the agreement, but it would be a difficult goal to achieve.

Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, agrees that Friday’s pact may serve to reduce tensions rather than resolve profound differences. He believes that an exhausted Saudi Arabia has been looking for a way out of the Yemen conflict for a long time, and its agreement with Tehran could lead to an agreement with the Iran-backed Houthis. However, he warns that conflict between the Houthis and the Saudi-backed coalition would continue and secessionist demands in southern Yemen would persist.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have had a chequered history in their less than a century of formal diplomatic relations, which has also seen many ups and downs since the Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran. The kingdom supported Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran in the 1980s but pursued closer ties with Tehran after the end of the war. Tehran and Riyadh grew closer during the tenure of reformist President Mohammad Khatami in Iran and signed a general cooperation agreement in 1998 and a security cooperation agreement in 2001. The fact that the two agreements that were signed decades ago were directly mentioned in the text of Friday’s agreement, with both sides pledging to implement them, is a significant development, according to Sina Toossi, a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC.

Toossi believes that mentioning these past agreements highlights the potential for increased cooperation and dialogue between the two countries on resolving their differences. However, it remains to be seen how they will handle sensitive issues such as concerns about their military and nuclear programmes, as well as internal affairs.

China was the big victor of the agreement, according to Hosseini, as it bolstered the legitimacy of its reach across the region. “Effectively, not only China became the guarantor of this agreement, it also showed that the US can no longer ignore China’s role in the security arrangements of the Persian Gulf, a region where the energy reserves and passageways are more important to the Chinese economy than the US,” he said.

The agreement was greeted with optimism by Iraq and Oman – who had previously helped mediate the talks – and many others in the region, while it was cautiously welcomed by the US.

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