Development of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran; effects and outcomes

The agreement to restore diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the mediation of China in February ۲۰۲۲, has been one of the most important events in the West Asian region in recent years.
10 July 2023
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Mohammadmehdi Mazaheri

The agreement to restore diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the mediation of China in February 2022, has been one of the most important events in the West Asian region in recent years. Although the negotiations to restore the relations between the parties were going on for nearly two years, finally China's success in mediating and bringing to a conclusion the efforts to reconcile the two main powers in the region keyed a dynamic development in West Asia, and it seems that this agreement and political reconciliation will have an effect not only on the regional level but also on a global level.

Although the movements and activities of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the last few months to reopen embassies, cooperate on the Hajj issue, and improve relations with other countries in the region (Arabia with Syria, Iran with Egypt, and the countries of the Persian Gulf), to some extent made clear the early outcomes of this reconciliation, the key question is to what extent this political reconciliation is sustainable and does it include strategic effects and outcomes?

In order to understand and analyze this issue, one must first understand the intention and goal of both sides to put aside differences and improve and develop. On the part of Iran, it should be said that reconciliation and development of relations with Saudi Arabia were pursued in order to achieve the following goals and interests:

  • Reducing regional tensions and improving relations with neighbors, especially Persian Gulf Arabs;
  • Preventing the formation of a new Arab-Western-Hebrew front against Iran;
  • Creating a fundamental transformation in foreign policy to reduce domestic economic-social crises;
  • Trying to reduce the effect of sanctions by accessing the financial resources of the Persian Gulf countries;
  • Preventing the hostile, divisive, and separatist actions of the Iran International channel supported by Saudi Arabia;
  • Preventing further convergence of the Arabs of the Persian Gulf with Israel and the development of the Abraham Accords;
  • Removing Iran from the position of the enemy of Islamic countries and returning the Palestinian issue to the center of attention of the Islamic world;
  • Stopping Saudi Arabia from supporting separatist groups and other opponents of Iran.
  • On the other hand, Saudi Arabia had several interests in ending the hostility and proxy wars with the Islamic Republic of Iran:
  • Observing the indifference and non-commitment of the American government to support Arab countries against Iran and as a result of distrust of America and its Western allies;
  • The contradictory and confusing positions of the Biden administration towards Iran and the JCPOA;
  • The practical victory of the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war;
  • Inability to control and confront pro-Iranian Shiite groups in various countries of the region;
  • The harmfulness of continuing conflicts with Iran to turn Saudi Arabia into an economic-tourist hub in the region and the world;
  • Ending the destructive and costly proxy war in Yemen, which has affected Saudi Arabia's budget and international reputation, and on September 14, 2019, led to Houthi missile attacks on Saudi Arabia's oil facilities (Aramco) and in addition to stopping half of the crude oil production in this country, it also shocked the Saudi authorities.

Based on this, considering the key position of Saudi Arabia and Iran in the West Asian region and the mutual interests of the parties in the improvement and development of relations, it is expected that if the two sides successfully manage and advance the process of normalization and improvement of relations, soon we will witness the resolution of chronic problems in the region, including the political-economic crisis in Lebanon, the war in Yemen, and the governance problems in Syria.

On the other hand, the political reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia has and will have international outcomes. In the story of the improvement of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, China became the decisive winner of peacemaking in the Middle East and gained a global reputation. As a result, not only China's software power base was strengthened, but also its hardware problems in providing safe and continuous energy for its leading industries and powerful were also strengthened. Therefore, the reconciliation of Iran and Saudi Arabia was a winning card for China and will help to develop the power and influence of this country in the international arena in the near future. Of course, while paying attention to China's important economic and diplomatic power in the region, it should also be pointed out that China currently has no desire to play the role that America used to play in the Middle East because of the priority they give to economic development, the Beijing authorities do not want to actively enter into conflicts in the West Asian region and even prefer the United States to continue its traditional presence in the Persian Gulf and provide security in this region for free. As a result of the success of this East Asian superpower in reconciling Iran and Saudi Arabia, it does not pose an immediate security threat to America; on the contrary, if this improvement in relations (Arabia and Iran) remains normal, it can remove the burden of the problems of the Middle East from the shoulders of the United States and, by reducing the expectations of its regional allies, give the United States more opportunities to address its foreign policy priorities (Competition with China and Russia's defeat in Ukraine).

On the other hand, in line with America's positive approach to improving relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the focus of this country, as well as European countries, was removed from Iran's domestic problems, cooperation with opposition groups and currents, and the advancement of the subversion project in Iran, and was directed towards regional problems. Confronting and dealing with the terrorist group of hypocrites in Albania and canceling their meeting in France are clear manifestations of this. However, the United States government is simultaneously pursuing the project of normalizing Arab countries' relations with Israel and developing the Abraham Accords in order to prevent the formation of an Islamic coalition against Israel centered on Iran.

On the other hand, following the political reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the negative media atmosphere against the Islamic Republic of Iran also decreased to some extent, and by abandoning the policy of isolating Iran, the taboo of developing relations with the Islamic Republic was also broken. In this regard, Saudi Arabia's key position in the Arab world and among Islamic countries and the country's acceptance of improving relations with Iran was a green light for other Arab countries, including Egypt, to improve their relations with Iran; a process that can help the development of Iran's relations with influential African countries.

Nevertheless, some of the key challenges and differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia still remain, and if no measures are taken to deal with them, they can damage the relations between the two sides in the long run. The most important problem is the normalization of Arab countries' relations with the Israeli regime. Although Saudi Arabia has so far avoided joining the Abraham Accords and officially normalizing relations with Israel, at the same time, it has tried to keep open the vision of normalizing relations with this regime to increase deterrence against Iran. One of Riyadh's preconditions for normalizing relations with Israel has been to acquire nuclear fuel technology through the United States government. The Saudis are also seeking to acquire a missile and drone industry to compete with Iran and uranium enrichment capabilities to balance Iran and Israel. Based on this, we can also see the improvement in Saudi Arabia's relations with Iran on the other side. Riyadh has tried to get closer to America's enemy in the region (the Islamic Republic of Iran) to demand a higher price from Israel to normalize relations with this country and, at the same time to get more concessions from the Israeli regime. Also, by agreeing to China's mediation, Saudi Arabia's leadership has tried to use China's positive relations with Iran to its advantage and send a message to the White House. Accordingly, one of the serious concerns of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the near future will be the agreement of the United States and Israel to the requests of Saudi Arabia and the development of security, intelligence, and military convergence between Saudi Arabia and the United States and Israel. Saudi Arabia's requests to curb the resistance front by Iran are also serious challenges in the relations between the parties.

In such a situation, it seems that the most effective solutions that can turn the official and political relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia into a strategic relationship with long-lasting effects are focusing on the common points and avoiding highlighting the differences between the two parties, expanding these relations to the elite, social and popular levels to create common culture and norms as well as develop economic cooperation and joint ventures; in such a way that the interests of the parties are defined in maintaining and continuing the relationship.

Mohammad Mehdi Mazaheri, university professor

 (The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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