Seven years of estrangement and bitter rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran come to an abrupt end
Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed to resume diplomatic ties and reopen embassies, according to a joint statement released following talks in Beijing. The statement released on Friday reiterated that the two sides agreed to respect mutual sovereignty and noninterference in each other’s affairs.
According to the statement, both countries agreed to reopen embassies within two months, while Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers also will hold meetings to implement the agreement, exchange ambassadors and discuss ways to strengthen relations.
The agreement is significant since it was signed by the two major powers in the Middle East after endless disputes and seven years of diplomatic freeze. The Kingdom and Iran have been locked in a bitter rivalry, with the former defending the Arab world against Iranian interference carried out via its proxy actors, which have significant clout in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
Saudi Arabia has always sought peace, and it was only when the Iran-backed Houthis toppled President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in Yemen that Riyadh took a firm stand, deciding to intervene to protect the legitimate government. There are no Saudi proxy actors in the region. Over the past two years, there have been five rounds of talks between the Kingdom and Iran.
Talks that began under former Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi touched on ways to ease tensions between the two countries, resume diplomatic relations, and settle disputes arising from Iran’s role in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. Thus, all the previous rounds of discussions were primarily of a security nature. So, the recent agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the joint statement the two countries issued along with China, marks a shift from a security to a diplomatic dialogue. This is another step forward.
Saudi Arabia has always sought peace, and it was only when the Iran-backed Houthis toppled President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in Yemen that Riyadh took a firm stand, deciding to intervene to protect the legitimate government.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
The reasons behind such a breakthrough are diverse, but the primary factor is that Saudi Arabia is pursuing a foreign policy approach based mainly on easing tensions, ending disputes and restoring stability. This foreign policy approach is part of the broader vision for the country and the region. The Kingdom favors peace over war and dialogue over severing relations, as well as channeling the region’s massive resources to achieve prosperity and development, rather than financing militias and the production of weapons.
This is a theme that Saudi officials have repeated in recent years. Immediately after the joint statement was released, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan wrote on Twitter: “The resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is based on the Kingdom’s vision favoring political resolution and dialogue and keenness to foster this orientation in the region. All the region’s countries have a shared destiny and common denominations, which make it necessary for us to share the model of prosperity and stability for our peoples to enjoy it.”
This tweet epitomizes Saudi foreign policy and vision for the region. It is not the first of its kind. The Saudi foreign minister has reiterated the Kingdom’s readiness for dialogue on several occasions. On Jan. 17, 2023, he told a Davos forum session that dialogue is the best way to resolve differences in the region. “We are trying to create dialogue with all parties. And our main focus is on development.”
By emphasizing development, rather than geopolitical issues, he alluded to Iran and others, signaling that there are other trajectories through which countries can achieve shared prosperity.
It is worth noting that this agreement is a litmus test — for Iran. The two countries agreed to reopen embassies within two months. This time frame is important. Both countries are shifting from focusing on security to political issues. The problem with Iran is not dialogue, but goodwill. Saudi Arabia has never rejected dialogue with Iran. However, the Kingdom has also asserted that its neighbor must show goodwill in order for this dialogue to move forward.
There is a deep divide and total distrust between Riyadh and Tehran. Repairing damaged ties requires a transitional period and the restoring of confidence. The remarks, as well as the agreement signed between the two sides, must yield material results. If Iran has sincere intentions to ease tensions and end disputes in the region, perhaps these will become evident in Yemen. Saudi Arabia does not want war in Yemen. It is keen to reach a peaceful resolution, while at the same time ending the subversive Iranian role via the Houthis at the expense of the legitimate government.
The question that arises is, why China? Beijing is a close friend of both Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is the main trading partner for each, but the most important customer of Iranian products, despite the US and global economic sanctions against Tehran. Therefore, China will be the guarantor of Iran fulfilling the agreement — and if Iran cheats, it will lose out.
International reactions to the Saudi Arabia-Iran thaw will vary, depending on each country’s own interests. China has welcomed the agreement and described it as a victory for peace. However, Israel may not be pleased. It has deep concerns about Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, and wants an end to the nuclear dispute, even via military means. Iran’s proxy actors in Syria — once deployed at the closest point to its borders — are a headache that Israel also wants to tackle. To achieve this, Israel wants regional and global mobilization against Tehran. It may view the agreement between Riyadh and Tehran as a threat to its interests.
China will be the guarantor of Iran fulfilling the agreement — and if Iran cheats, it will lose out.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
Additionally, Europe is moving further away from Iran. The European troika — the UK, France and Germany — issued a joint statement announcing that INSTEX, a financial vehicle designed to facilitate trade between Iran and Europe in 2019 and mitigate the impact of the US sanctions, will be liquidated. All the mechanism’s 10 stakeholders decided to terminate the arrangement, citing Iran’s continued obstruction as the reason.
Hence, the Saudi-Iran thaw will be tested in the next two months, depending on regional and global developments. Israeli pressure on the US, the course of Iranian-European relations, and Iran’s seriousness and goodwill will determine whether the agreement holds or collapses.
The Saudi-Iran rapprochement has an important message to deliver, at least on part of the Saudis. The Kingdom has engaged in this dialogue from a position of strength. It has a stronger economy and far better internal conditions than Iran. It is not mired in costly regional or global standoffs. Thus, the Saudi call for dialogue and the conclusion of the latest agreement with Tehran are signs of victory, rather than defeat; an indication of having the upper hand, rather than being forced to make concessions.
By contrast, Iran is beset by deteriorating economic conditions, an unstable domestic scene and declining regional clout. This call for dialogue, a clear break from the longstanding Iranian bellicose foreign policy chiefly engineered by IRGC generals, could be construed as the regime stepping back in order to save itself, and prevent further domestic deterioration and international isolation.
To conclude, Saudi Arabia has been showing goodwill, and working for peace, dialogue and prosperity. It has never rejected dialogue, but at the same time has refused to engage in talks that lead nowhere. Still, the diplomatic thaw is a huge step forward for a region torn by wars, disputes and rivalries.
Saudi Arabia is the most powerful and important Arab nation. Its foreign policy shapes regional and even global policies. If the Kingdom believes that easing tensions and restoring diplomatic ties with Iran can pay off, this orientation will be the hallmark of the region’s policies. However, it all depends on Iran’s long-lost goodwill. The ball is in Iran’s court. Let’s wait and see.
• Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami