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Foes to friends? Iran-Saudi detente creates ripple effects across region

March 24, 2023 at 3:55 pm

Following a diplomatic thaw between regional arch-foes, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom’s top diplomat on Wednesday phoned his Iranian counterpart to convey his well wishes upon the arrival of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The first phone call between the foreign ministers of the two countries in seven years came less than two weeks after Tehran and Riyadh agreed to normalise ties after two years of marathon talks.

A statement by Iran’s Foreign Ministry said the Islamic Republic’s Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, agreed to meet each other “as soon as possible” to make the necessary preparations to re-open embassies and consulates that have been closed since January 2016.

The rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh has, meanwhile, led to dramatic shifts in the geopolitical landscape, with Iran’s other neighbours now engaged in a frenzy of talks with Tehran.

After clinching the reconciliation deal with Saudi Arabia in Beijing earlier this month, Iran’s top security official, Ali Shamkhani, subsequently made whirlwind trips to Abu Dhabi and Baghdad.

Iran restored its diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, the two countries that severed their relations with Tehran in solidarity with Riyadh in January 2016, late last year.

READ: Iran and Saudi Arabia agree to restore ties after China-brokered talks

Tehran has already deputed its new Ambassador to Kuwait and is gearing up to appoint the new envoy to Abu Dhabi in “near future”, deputy Foreign Minister, Ali Bagheri, said last week.

The government of President Ebrahim Raisi, according to diplomatic sources, is also currently engaged in talks with Jordan and Egypt to upgrade ties to the ambassadorial level. While Cairo has only a charge d’affaires running its embassy in Tehran, Amman’s mission has remained unfunctional since January 2016.

The most significant development though, tied to the Tehran-Riyadh detente, is ongoing talks between Iran and Bahrain that have gathered momentum in recent weeks.

Massoud Sadeghi, a Tehran-based strategic affairs analyst, said the “ripple effects” created by the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia makes it “the most important diplomatic breakthrough this year”.

“The (Iran-Saudi) deal in itself is massive, but the way it has paved ground for other similar deals is remarkable and augurs well for peace and stability in the Persian Gulf region,” he told Anadolu. “And that includes the agreement between Riyadh and Damascus to re-open embassies after 11 years.”

Iran-Bahrain ties

Addressing a year-end press conference in Tehran on Saturday, Iran’s Foreign Minister said the country “welcomes restoration of relations” with all countries in the Persian Gulf region.

He spoke about the upgrade in relations with the UAE and Kuwait and the level of ambassadors and announced that Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tarik, during a visit to Bahrain in October 2022, proposed a plan to revive diplomatic ties between Tehran and Manama.

Oman, along with Iraq, played a key role in helping Tehran and Riyadh break the diplomatic ice.

In line with Muscat’s proposal, an Iranian parliamentary delegation recently visited Bahrain to participate in an inter-parliamentary summit and hold talks with Bahraini officials.

Elham Azad, an Iranian lawmaker and part of the parliamentary delegation said, upon her return from the island nation, that the Bahraini parliament speaker called for the re-opening of diplomatic missions. She also provided details about the talks between the two sides on resuming flights between Tehran and Manama.

READ: After Iran, Saudi Arabia to re-establish ties with Syria, sources say

On Tuesday, Bahrain’s deputy Parliament Speaker, Abdulnabi Salman, announced that flights between the two Persian Gulf countries will resume “soon”, adding that the decision was approved by the Iranian parliamentary delegation last week.

He also expressed Manama’s readiness to restore diplomatic ties with Tehran but asserted that Iran must “prove its good intentions in the coming days” so that Bahrain and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states can “enhance the state of official and popular acceptance”.

Bahrain, in line with decisions taken by the UAE, Kuwait, and Jordan at the time, had severed its diplomatic ties with Iran after the Saudi Embassy in Tehran was stormed by an angry mob in January 2016, in the wake of the execution of Saudi Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr.

Before that, in 2011, the two countries had briefly expelled their envoys after Tehran strongly criticised Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Bahrain in support of the Al-Khalifa government.

“We hope some of the obstacles between Tehran and Manama will be removed and the two sides will take basic steps to reopen the embassies,” Amir-Abdollahian said last week.

Ripple effects

At a weekly press conference on Monday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Nasser Kanaani, said the Tehran-Riyadh rapprochement had created a “positive atmosphere” in the region that could positively affect Tehran’s relations with other regional countries, as well.

He described Egypt as “an important country” in the region and called for “synergy” between the two countries to upgrade diplomatic ties, while referring to a “quick and positive” meeting between Iran’s Foreign Minister and Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Amman late last year.

In a statement earlier this month, Sisi, a key regional ally of Riyadh, welcomed the resumption of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia as a step “to end regional tension”.

Relations between Iran and Jordan are also expected to expand further in the wake of reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Amman severed ties with Tehran in 2016 in solidarity with Riyadh.

READ: Post-Abraham Accords, Israel’s foes are reconciling with their rivals

Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, met Jordan’s King Abdullah II on the sidelines of the summit in Baghdad in December, when Security Chief Shamkhani was visiting the Iraqi capital in December. Abdollahian also delivered a letter from President Ebrahim Raisi to the Jordanian King.

Kuwait and Iran have, since last year, taken substantial steps to ramp up diplomatic engagement, with officials of the two countries holding regular interactions at different levels.

Earlier this month, Iran’s Ambassador to Kuwait, Mohammad Irani and Kuwait’s deputy Foreign Minister held wide-ranging talks and agreed to expand bilateral ties.

The Iran-Saudi deal, experts believe, is expected to spur these efforts aimed at regional integration.

“Most of these countries severed diplomatic ties with Iran following the 2016 attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, so naturally the Tehran-Riyadh deal will resonate with them,” Sajjad Yousefi, a Middle East commentator, told Anadolu.

“The UAE and Kuwait have already taken big steps, while Jordan and Egypt have also expressed readiness to break the ice, and Bahrain, too, is holding talks — that’s what the Tehran-Riyadh deal can do.”

READ: Iran leader says bid to isolate Iran failed amid regional diplomacy

Notably, Iran and the UAE, during Shamkhani’s visit to Abu Dhabi last week, agreed to expand bilateral ties, with the Iranian official telling his Emirati counterpart that “cooperation and convergence must replace divergence and hostility”, as cited by Iran’s state media.

“To overcome existing challenges, the continuation of which is not in the interest of any country in the region, cooperation and convergence should replace hostility and divergence,” Shamkhani said in his meeting with UAE National Security Advisor, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed.

“These are early days yet, and it would be premature to jump to conclusions,” Yousefi cautioned. “The deals taking place are unarguably significant and promising, but how these countries follow up on them and fulfil their commitments will determine their success or failure.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.