Saudi-Iran relations a year on from rapprochement deal

Saudi-Iran relations a year on from rapprochement deal

The Saudi Arabia-Iran agreement has faced various tests, revealing potential opportunities for advancing their relations (AFP)
The Saudi Arabia-Iran agreement has faced various tests, revealing potential opportunities for advancing their relations (AFP)
Short Url

One year on from the revival of Saudi-Iranian relations through the China-brokered rapport agreement of March 10, 2023, this period has given us the time to gauge the agreement’s effectiveness and its impact on bilateral relations and the regional landscape. Despite conflicting interests, the trajectory of relations suggests that the agreement has yielded significant outcomes on the ground for both parties.

In this context, several questions arise regarding the impact of the agreement on Saudi-Iranian relations. What challenges does this relationship currently encounter and how can we interpret the repercussions and effects, both presently and in the future?

Drawing from the provisions of the joint statement of Saudi Arabia, Iran and China, and considering the relatively short duration of the agreement so far and the historical context shaping the relationship between the two nations, the primary achievements and setbacks in their relationship one-year post-reconciliation can be outlined. The agreement has signified a triumph for Saudi Arabia in terms of deterring Iran and its militias from launching missiles at the Kingdom. From Iran’s standpoint, the agreement has alleviated pressure on the country’s government by easing its regional isolation amid international scrutiny stemming from sanctions, the Ukraine conflict and its global image.

The period since Oct. 7, 2023, has seen regional tensions, serving as both a challenge and an opportunity for Riyadh and Tehran to navigate their relationship without compromising their respective interests. The reestablishment of diplomatic ties, including the reopening of embassies after a seven-year hiatus, marked the beginning of confidence-building efforts. Subsequent to this, exchanges occurred between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during November’s extraordinary Arab-Islamic summit in Riyadh. Additionally, senior officials from both nations engaged in rare discussions and meetings, with Riyadh even hosting Iranian military officials. However, concrete progress has remained elusive despite these interactions.

Throughout the past year, there has been a noticeable shift in the tone of official and semi-official Iranian media outlets

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

Throughout the past year, there has been a noticeable shift in the tone of official and semi-official Iranian media outlets regarding Saudi Arabia. While some negative coverage continues unabated, there has been a discernible reduction in the severity of attacks compared to the pre-agreement period. Meanwhile, the Saudi media has adopted a responsible and measured approach toward the agreement, refraining from launching any attacks on Iran. Instead, the focus has been on acknowledging a genuine and strategic change in the Kingdom and the new governance philosophy underpinning its ongoing modernization, development, construction and urbanization.

Economically, there has been little tangible progress in the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the past year. While there have been limited interactions, such as official visits and positive statements, particularly from Iran’s side, indicating a greater eagerness to accelerate economic ties, the Kingdom has been more cautious. This cautious approach is influenced by economic and political considerations, international circumstances and historical relations between the two countries. Additionally, the reluctance of the Saudi private sector to engage in commercial relations with Iran, fearing repercussions from violating sanctions, has contributed to the slow pace of economic normalization.

The reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran has reverberated across the Arab political landscape. Following the signing of the Saudi-Iranian deal, efforts to restore Saudi-Syrian relations gained momentum, leading to Syria’s reinstatement in the Arab League and President Bashar Assad’s participation in the 32nd Arab League Summit in Jeddah last May. However, despite these positive steps, contentious issues have continued to loom large. These include Tehran’s expansive activities in Syria, such as its structural expansion, weapons and drug smuggling and threats to neighboring countries like Jordan. Such actions have contradicted the terms of the China-brokered deal, which emphasized refraining from threatening neighboring nations.

Since the Saudi-Iranian reconciliation, Lebanon’s Hezbollah has tempered its customary escalations against Saudi Arabia. However, border tensions have continued to transpire between Iran and regional countries. The long-standing dispute over the Durra gas field has resurfaced, involving Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other. Similarly, the status of the islands contested by Iran and the UAE remains unresolved. These disputes represent significant flashpoints that test the trajectory of Saudi-Gulf relations with Iran.

The conflict in Gaza has served as a crucial political litmus test for the durability of the Saudi-Iranian agreement. Despite differing goals, both nations have sought to halt the escalation, while condemning Israel’s actions and advocating for Palestinian rights. Saudi Arabia has worked to find a resolution and decided against joining the Red Sea coalition led by Washington, while Iran has used the crisis to bolster its proxies in Iraq and Yemen, leveraging media narratives and playing on the heartstrings of Muslims, but showing less regard for Palestinian lives.

Decades of turbulence have left a crisis of confidence between the two nations, rather than a mere lack of trust

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

In Yemen, Saudi-Omani initiatives spearheaded the efforts toward a political settlement, but complications arose due to the Iranian-backed Houthis’ role. Since the Al-Aqsa Flood operation, the militia, which is aligned with the “axis of resistance,” has targeted maritime routes in the Gulf of Aden and Bab Al-Mandab Strait and fired missiles and drones toward Israel. In response, an alliance was formed to safeguard navigation in these waters, with the US and UK targeting Houthi capabilities. This undermines the prospects for a political resolution in Yemen, as Iran continues supporting the Houthi faction both politically and militarily. Iran’s backing extends to Houthi attacks on commercial vessels, showcasing Tehran’s determination to leverage the Houthis to advance its agenda in the region.

Throughout the last year, the Saudi Arabia-Iran agreement has faced various tests, revealing potential opportunities for advancing their relations. Decades of turbulence have left a crisis of confidence between the two nations, rather than a mere lack of trust. Meanwhile, China’s facilitation of the agreement marked a significant diplomatic shift for the nation on the global stage. This underscores the need for sustained success and resilience in the face of attempts to derail the agreement.

The primary challenge lies in the fluctuation of Iran’s positions. Historically, Tehran has often initiated actions during crises, with Saudi Arabia reacting in response. Consequently, there are concerns that any breach of the agreement’s obligations may originate from Iran, particularly in response to significant internal or external developments. These dynamics may compel Iranian decision-makers to further strain relations with Saudi Arabia.

In this context, the Iranian regime swiftly sought to leverage the agreement to bolster its regional influence. Utilizing the agreement’s framework, Iran embarked on initiatives to reestablish ties with Egypt and Sudan, signaling a renewed effort to extend its influence into the Red Sea and Africa. The unfolding developments in this arena necessitate vigilant monitoring, with a particular emphasis on preventing the proliferation of militias and clandestine networks along the western shores of the Red Sea.

Amid these unfolding developments, several scenarios can be envisioned for the future trajectory of the Beijing-sponsored agreement.

Firstly, there is the prospect of its continued success, marked by the resolution of major issues between the two nations, potentially including the Yemeni crisis. Secondly, a scenario involving the management of rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran without a return to heightened tensions appears the most plausible. Lastly, albeit less likely, is the scenario that sees tensions resurging, contingent upon significant global developments, such as a return to power of former US President Donald Trump. Nonetheless, the agreement remains imperative for both parties, particularly for Iran, amid its pressing internal challenges and economic morass.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is the founder and president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). X: @mohalsulami
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view