There is no doubt that the restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is major news which has surprised almost everyone, despite leaks about Omani other regional mediation. Since April 2021, for example, Baghdad has hosted five rounds of talks between the two countries fighting over regional influence and the leadership of the Islamic world. However, the only benefit has been the truce in Yemen, which is still holding, more or less.
Suddenly, though, Beijing announced an agreement made under its auspices for Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic relations and re-open their embassies within months. Why in two months, and not immediately? Is this to test the waters and show good intentions? Is this a message to Washington and Tel Aviv that they are waiting for a response? Or are there other objectives?
There are many other questions surrounding this issue. Why now and what will the regional repercussions be? Why China, and not Oman or Iraq? Does this mean an end to the proxy regional wars in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon? Is the agreement tactical or strategic? Does this mean that Saudi Arabia is looking to the east, away from Washington as a result of US President Joe Biden’s policies towards the Kingdom? Yes, Biden visited Riyadh last July to appease Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed Bin Salman, but he did not get what he wanted, and said explicitly that the US will not leave a vacuum in the Middle East for China or Russia to fill, and that it will never allow them to infiltrate the Middle East. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the Kingdom in December, and received a warm welcome, which astonished him as much as the rest of us as it was a stark contrast to the welcome that Biden got.
Nevertheless, the US has apparently welcomed the Saudi-Iran agreement, according to White House national security spokesman John Kirby. He said that Washington hopes that this will mean an end to the war in Yemen and help to reduce tension in the Middle East. However, he expressed doubts regarding the extent of Tehran’s commitment to the agreement: “It really does remain to be seen whether the Iranians are going to honour their side of the deal.”
We know that international diplomacy often entails saying one thing and doing another, so perhaps this statement aims to save face for the US, and give the impression that the agreement was reached with Washington’s knowledge and blessing. It is clear that it did not please the US and has angered Israel, especially since Saudi Arabia is viewed as one of its Gulf allies in a strategic axis against Iran. While a Saudi-Israel alliance has not been announced explicitly, discussions have been taking place behind closed doors for at least two years. Saudi Arabia has even opened its air space to Israeli aircraft since July last year. Assuming that the embassies do reopen as agreed, will we see Israeli warplanes over-flying Saudi Arabia to strike Iran? The situation is obviously becoming more complicated, and the Kingdom is still worried about Iran’s nuclear programme and has been waiting for a US-Israeli strike on its facilities for the past decade. Riyadh is, therefore, now in an awkward position, although it probably hopes that an attack on Iran will not use Saudi air space so that it does not get involved directly and face Iranian retaliation.
Riyadh severed its relations with Tehran in January 2016, following an attack on its embassy in the Iranian capital and its consulate in the town of Mashhad, by protesters against the Kingdom’s execution of Shia cleric Nimr Al-Nimr. Iran and Saudi Arabia are two regional powers and major oil exporters with important geopolitical and strategic positions in the Middle East. Their relations have often been marred by tension, with occasional reconciliation and relatively short-lived improvements ever since the rule of Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. However, their differences were not ideological, and neither used the Sunni-Shia card until after the victory of the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979. Both countries were allies of the US, which regulated their relations, but after the success of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution everything changed as Iran took on the “Great Satan” across the Atlantic.
Tehran’s policies and foreign relations have since been based on this hostility, which is driven by an ideology that relies on exporting the Islamic revolution and competing with Saudi Arabia over the leadership of the Islamic world. This prompted Saudi Arabia to support former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein financially and militarily in his war against Iran that lasted eight years until Khomeini “drank poison”, as he put it, and ended it.
Now it seems that the Saudi crown prince has also “drank poison” to end the estrangement with Iran after he failed miserably in his war against Yemen, which has lasted eight years without achieving any of its goals. He was the one who threatened Iran with taking the battle to the heart of Tehran after the Kingdom was hit by Iranian missiles used by Yemen’s Houthis, Iran’s proxies in Yemen.
Bin Salman’s decision to turn to the east and remove himself from the US orbit is, in itself, a strategic move that involves grave risks internally and may cost him a lot, including his land and possibly his throne. America’s hand rests on all institutions in the Kingdom and Washington can change the entire Saudi scene. That may be the reason why, it has been reported, the Saudi prince is offering to normalise with Israel in return for US protection, help with a civilian nuclear programme and the lifting of restrictions on arms sales.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.