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What are the drivers and implications of reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

October 4, 2023 at 9:30 am

Iran’s top security official Ali Shamkhani (R), Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (C) and Musaid Al Aiban, the Saudi Arabia’s national security adviser, pose for a photo after Iran and Saudi Arabia agree to resume diplomatic ties after several days of deliberations in Beijing, China on 10 March 2023 [Chinese Foreign Ministry/Anadolu Agency]

The Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have always experienced periods of tension due to different interpretations of Islam, geopolitical rivalries, differences in political systems, conflicting OPEC oil policies, political misunderstandings and their relationship with the United States and other Western countries. On 10 March this year, however, following a meeting in China between Ali Shamkhani, the then Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, and his Saudi counterpart Musaad Bin Mohammed Al-Aiban, the Kingdom’s National Security Adviser, diplomatic relations between their countries resumed after seven years of discord and hostility. Subsequently, their foreign ministers met in Beijing in May, and then Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan Al-Saud visited Tehran in June, marking the opening of a new chapter in the extensive history of relations between the two countries. Furthermore, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s visit to Saudi Arabia and his meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman on 1 September completed the puzzle of renewing relations between Riyadh and Tehran. These developments were deemed so important that Rahim Safavi, a top military adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stated that the agreement was “a political earthquake” and “means the post-US era in the Gulf region has begun.”

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If we categorise the reasons and implications for Iran-Saudi reconciliation, it can be analysed at three levels: domestic, regional, and international. At the domestic level, Iran’s actions can be understood as part of President Ebrahim Raisi’s doctrine of “Look East” and “Neighbourhood Policy”. The Look East policy aims to strengthen relations with China and Russia, while the Neighbourhood Policy prioritises Iran’s 15 neighbouring countries as its main economic and political partners. This doctrine is outlined in order to neutralise the pressures of America and the West. In fact, Tehran-Riyadh rapprochement has brought a kind of diplomatic victory and prestige to the Raisi government. Iran faced internal unrest from September to November 2022, and successful diplomacy regarding Saudi Arabia strengthened the country’s position at the domestic and international levels. In the current political environment, while there is little hope for the revival of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement, reconciliation with Saudi Arabia while under severe sanctions imposed by the US can reduce Iran’s economic strains and strengthen its position in the region.

Tehran maintains that by restoring relations with Saudi Arabia, it can partially address its economic problems and thereby mitigate the impact of US sanctions. Strengthening Iran’s ties with neighbouring countries and avoiding overreliance on the JCPOA were among Raisi’s key promises during the presidential election. Furthermore, this can be seen as one of his campaign’s advantages for the next election in 2025. On the Saudi side, the country is grappling with a succession crisis; the legitimacy of Bin Salman as the rightful heir to the Saudi throne is disputed by the ruling Al-Saud family and most of the Saudi people. Following King Salman’s ascension to the throne in 2015, Muqrin Bin Abdulaziz was removed as crown prince, and Muhammad Bin Nayef, who was a serious contender for the throne, was compelled to resign. Moreover, Ahmed Bin Abdulaziz, who was supposed to come to power, was imprisoned. While this internal dilemma may have been resolved to some extent within the royal family, it remains a challenge to convince the Saudi people that the dynasty has the right to continue to rule, especially in an era where democratic discourse holds sway globally. Nevertheless, Bin Salman has managed to suppress potential rivals.

Another reason for Saudi Arabia’s reconciliation with Iran is that, at least for the next decade, Riyadh’s priority is to realise its social and economic reform programme outlined in Vision 2030. The Kingdom has realised that the achievement of this ambitious project hinges on regional stability, which can only be attained through normalising relations with Iran. In Bin Salman’s opinion, the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia at its core, has the potential to be transformed into a “new Europe”.

Iran has accepted that without Saudi Arabia, it is not able to solve the dilemmas in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen

At the regional level, both sides have come to acknowledge their undeniable role in managing regional crises. On the one hand, Iran has accepted that without Saudi Arabia, it is not able to solve the dilemmas in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Although Iran may have the upper hand in these regional crises, Tehran recognises that it cannot address the problems alone and eliminate the sources of perpetual strife. Hence, cooperation with Riyadh is necessary. Iran understands that it cannot be engaged in multiple conflicts simultaneously in the region. Furthermore, an agreement with Saudi Arabia holds strategic value for Tehran in deterring threats from Israel. While the normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel was prioritised by the Biden administration in the Middle East during its first term, it seems unlikely to occur during the lifetime of King Salman. He has identified the resolution of the Palestinian issue as a red line for any normalisation of his country’s relations with Israel. Bin Salman maintains that the Palestinian issue is “very important” for the Saudis. “We need to solve that part. We’ve got to see where we go. We hope that will reach a place, that it will ease the life of the Palestinians, (and) get Israel as a player in the Middle East.” However, Tehran considers the potential inclusion of Saudi Arabia in the Abraham Accords as a threat to its own security.

Moreover, Tehran views China’s engagement in Gulf security matters as a step towards de-Westernisation and de-Americanisation of the regional order. Iran believes that as Beijing’s influence grows, it will gradually undermine the security framework led by the US in the Gulf and the wider Middle East. This perspective is useful for Iran in terms of distancing potential threats within its geopolitical sphere. Consequently, as part of this process, Iran prefers to involve China in Gulf security affairs to limit American influence. However, contrary to Iran’s viewpoint, China seeks a broader presence in the Persian Gulf primarily through economic and commercial relations, as well as the arms trade. It seems that China does not intend to establish a military presence or directly confront US influence in the region. Instead, it prioritises stability through cooperation with the West. Nevertheless, as part of its step-by-step strategy to create a multipolar world, Beijing aims to reassure Gulf countries that it is a reliable and mutually beneficial long-term partner.

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At the regional level, there are several additional reasons that explain the shifting approach of Saudi Arabia, and particularly Bin Salman, towards Iran. The Saudi king and crown prince initially expected the war in Yemen to stabilise their family’s position within the Kingdom’s power structure. However, after more than eight years, the conflict in Yemen has become a protracted war of attrition, with ongoing negotiations in Oman trying to find a way out of the quagmire. Throughout the war, Houthi forces have launched missiles and drones at the easternmost parts of Saudi Arabia, posing a strategic challenge to the Saudi government. Even the famed Patriot missile defence systems were unable to deal fully with these attacks. On 14 September 2019, the Houthis dealt a significant blow to the internal legitimacy and authority of King Salman and the crown prince by cutting Saudi Arabia’s oil production in half through an attack on Aramco’s oil facilities. In light of these developments, Riyadh hopes to gain control over the Houthis with the assistance of Iran and resolve the crisis. As a result, direct meetings between Saudi and Houthi officials took place in Riyadh and Sana’a during August and September. The Saudi foreign ministry assessed the outcomes of these meetings positively. As such, it is understandable that in recent months there have been no attacks on Saudi Arabia’s refineries or military targets by Yemeni missiles and drones. Moreover, Riyadh has effectively halted its military operations against the Houthis.

From Saudi Arabia’s perspective, Qatar is seen as a small actor that lacks the willingness to align with Riyadh’s hegemonic policies within the Gulf Cooperation Council. Riyadh expected Qatar to conform to its policies, as Bahrain and other countries in the region have done. However, tensions escalated in 2017, leading Saudi Arabia and several other countries to impose a blockade and embargo on Qatar. Saudi Arabia believed that Qatar would yield to its political demands in a short period of time, but this did not occur. As a result, Bin Salman was compelled to restore relations with Qatar in January 2021.

Furthermore, after more than 12 years, Saudi Arabia agreed to Syria’s re-entry at the Arab League and normalised relations with the country following Bashar Assad’s participation in the Arab Summit in Jeddah earlier this year. Previously, most Arab nations had envisioned normalising relations with Syria. Consequently, Assad was able to overcome the legitimacy crisis and consolidate his political power.

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The murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018 dealt a significant moral blow to Bin Salman’s image as a modernising, democratic leader. Through a de-escalation policy involving Iran, this young leader may attempt to present himself as a moderate, potentially increasing his popularity among his own people and in the Arab world.

At the international level, China’s emergence as a dependable and unbiased mediator reflects the shifting power dynamics in regional and global multipolar politics. In recent years, China’s trade with the Middle East, including the GCC, has experienced significant growth compared with the US. By 2021, the value of trade between the GCC and China had reached $228.9 billion, while the total US trade volume with the GCC was estimated at $100bn in 2022. Thanks to Beijing’s economy-oriented approach, China has become the primary bilateral trade partner for Arab countries, reaching an impressive figure of $330bn in 2021.

Saudi Arabia aims to maximise economic and political benefits from countries like Russia, China, Japan…

Tehran has welcomed Beijing as a new strategic partner, aiming to reduce America’s role in the region. Over the course of nearly two decades, Iran and China have developed deeper economic and political ties. This includes the signing of a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement in March 2021 and Iran’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in September 2022. Similarly, Saudi Arabia is pursuing a policy of diversifying its strategic partners and reducing security risks associated with over-reliance on the US. Riyadh’s policy of strategic ambiguity regarding the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is seen in this context. Under the leadership of Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia aims to maximise economic and political benefits from countries like Russia, China, Japan, and so on while maintaining its alliance with the West and the US. That’s why Riyadh insists on ensuring its security through US guarantees. One of the conditions Bin Salman has set for normalisation with Israel is the US guaranteeing the Kingdom’s security.

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Ayham Kamel, the head of Middle East research for the Eurasia Group, considered the detente as part of a broader realignment in the Middle East by maintaining that, “Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries want global partnerships with the US as the key but not only pillar.” According to American political scientist Stephan Walt, “Autocrats around the world [are] being more comfortable with China’s approach than with the United States’ penchant for heavily armed moralising.”

China has also stepped into a new political sphere by mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In other words, Beijing is now ready to assume the role of proactive diplomat in world affairs. Additionally, considering China’s economic and military powers as well as its political credibility as a non-imperialist country, the recent agreement has awarded a level of political status to Beijing’s more proactive role in the international system. Tehran and other dissenting states are hopeful that the assumption of such a role by China means the decline of US power in the Gulf and other international arenas.

De-escalation between Tehran and Riyadh does not mean severing US influence

In the end, it should be noted that even with the signing of agreements or the de-escalation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a lasting and deep strategic partnership between the two countries is unlikely in the short term. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries will continue to be strategic US allies in the region. The extent of America’s presence there and the impact of the Abraham Accords run deep, and de-escalation between Tehran and Riyadh does not mean severing US influence. As long as the hostility between Iran and the United States persists, it is improbable that the Gulf will be completely shielded from the repercussions of this animosity. Moreover, the tension between Tehran and Riyadh has roots in conflicting geopolitical interests, ideological differences and other factors that the two regional powers have been contending with. These divergent interests are likely to persist, although there is optimism that recent rapprochement efforts may lead to better management of this potential geopolitical rivalry in the future. This policy shift towards Tehran was visible in Bin Salman’s recent interview as he sought to strike a conciliatory tone on Iran. Tehran, he said, had been taking the issue of mending ties with his country “very seriously… so we are investing in that.”

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