PULASKI COMMENTARY: Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement: what it might mean for the Middle East  (Robert Czulda)

PULASKI COMMENTARY: Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement: what it might mean for the Middle East (Robert Czulda)

A surprising decision to re-establish diplomatic ties between two arch-rivals – the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – could potentially alter a security landscape in the Middle East. However, significant challenges remain, and they will ultimately determine a fate of the agreement. Their deep and structural nature makes it difficult to be optimistic.

If any bilateral relations decisively influence a situation in the Middle East, undoubtedly they are those between Saudi Arabia and Iran – two regional powers whose interests extend far beyond their own borders. Both states pursue an active policy in the region, seeking to increase their influence. Mutual animosities between these states and their rivalry for years exacerbate regional conflicts and tensions, which are intentionally used by both Riyadh and Tehran to achieve their own goals. Both actors clash not only on ideological and symbolic levels (presenting themselves as leaders of the Muslim world and guardians of Islam) but also on geopolitical and economic (energy) levels.

Historical context

In the past, one could describe bilateral relations as either tense or cool, but in recent years, they have taken on a dimension of conflict. It was influenced by several factors, including the fact that in 2017 power was taken over in Saudi Arabia by hawkish Crown Prince Ibn Salman. In 2017, Iranian Vice President Majid Ansari publicly stated that “Saudi Arabia is the mother of all terrorists in the region,” while Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani added that “for almost 60 years, Saudi Arabia has been promoting Wahhabism around the world,” which was labelled as “an ideology of violence.”[1] In turn, for the aforementioned Mohammad Ibn Salman, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was a new incarnation of Hitler.[2]

In 2016, bilateral relations were cut after Riyadh executed a prominent Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, while the Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked and ransacked by an angry mob. In May 2017, Ibn Salman, when asked about a possibility of talks with Tehran, replied that it was impossible to find agreement with people who “base their convictions on the ideology of extremism.”[3] In the second half of 2019, researcher Luciano Zaccara referred to a period of heightened confrontation that threatened a “war outbreak with unpredictable consequences”.[4] This was due to a series of oil tanker attacks in the region and a strike carried out by pro-Iran militias in Yemen. In 2019, there was an attack on Abha International Airport in southwestern Saudi Arabia conducted by Houthi rebels, who are aligned with Iran, claimed responsibility for the attack. The attack involved the use of drones, which targeted the airport’s arrival hall and caused several injuries. Finally, on March 10, 2023, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to restore their relations. Undisclosed talks were held in Beijing.

Political meaning

Any international deal that decreases tensions – especially in such a volatile sub-region as the Middle East – should be seen as positive news. After all, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to reimplement two previously signed agreements, including the one regarding a bilateral security cooperation (it was signed in 2001). This deal might reduce a risk of armed conflict between these two regional powers (a risk was low anyway, but accidental escalation could not be ruled out). Even without open Saudi-Iranian war, their rivalry had destructive consequences for the Middle East, contributing to an escalation of violence, tension, and sectarian split.

The Iranian-Saudi agreement was brokered by China, what is worth noting. China’s traditional policy towards the Middle East has been based on maintaining a balanced approach and avoiding taking clear sides in conflicts. China has historically maintained good relations with countries in the region, regardless of their political affiliations, and has prioritised economic and energy cooperation over political or military alliances. Guided by a policy of balancing, Xi Jinping first visited Saudi Arabia in December 2022 and then hosted Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Beijing in February 2023.

For China, this is an important achievement – not only symbolic, but also practical. China, who demonstrated that the United States is no longer a sole broker in the region, has not previously engaged in this type of initiative, and now it has shown that it is an important political actor that can play a constructive role in both global and regional issues. Further rapprochement between the Arab monarchies and China can be expected, not only in economic terms but also in political and military dimensions. At the same time, this deal allows China – who is a major purchaser of oil from both countries  – to strengthen its relations with Iran (which were last year questioned by some when the first China-Arab States summit was held in Riyadh, and Xi signed cooperative agreements under the Belt and Road Initiative in various fields).

While China has proven that it can successfully talk to anyone, the United States, which has been a key player in the Middle East for decades, was left on the sidelines. This is not surprising, as the Americans have very tense relations with Iran and simply could not broker such a deal. Earlier, the Biden administration failed to revive the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) with Iran. At the same time, US relations with Saudi Arabia are rather cool.

It is worth mentioning that Israel had hoped that the White House would facilitate a rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but this idea was rejected – at least for now – by Saudi Arabia, who wanted to get “more than Washington is ready to give. In exchange for opening formal ties with Israel, the Saudis have asked the United States for security guarantees, help developing a civilian nuclear program, and fewer restrictions on U.S. arms sales.”[5] It is difficult not to notice that this is a major setback for Israel, whose plan to create an anti-Iranian coalition with Saudi Arabia has failed.

A setback for the United States does not necessarily mean a diplomatic disaster. A potentially secure and more stable Middle East is also beneficial for the United States, as it could focus more on the Indo-Pacific. Secondly, China played a constructive role by bringing two enemies to a negotiation table. This is a positive fact. Moreover, the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia does not mean the end of cooperation with the United States, which – despite tensions in recent years between the House of Saud and the White House – remains a key security provider for Saudi Arabia and other Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia – and probably other countries in the region – are aware that in changing international realities, it is worth strengthening relations with China, whose power has been growing. An example of such views is Riyadh’s interest in joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. A policy of balancing between China and the United States could be risky and backfire on Riyadh at some point, but an ultimate outcome would depend on many unpredictable factors and diplomatic skills of Saudi decision-makers. Nothing is predetermined.

Conclusions

Although the agreement offers hope for reducing tensions, excessive optimism is not advisable. Technical details still need to be discussed and agreed upon. It cannot be ruled out that even exchanges of ambassadors (which are expected to take place within two months) will not occur. After all, both states have been deeply involved in violent competition in the Middle East and beyond – the Islamic world. Structural differences between these two powers, including deep-rooted animosity and mistrust, as well as religious differences, persist. There are also specific issues, including Iran’s nuclear, drone and missile programmes, which remain a key threat perceived by Saudi Arabia.

It is also difficult to ignore the „Shiite Crescent offensive,” including primarily the proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran in Yemen, not to mention their struggles in Syria, Iraq, or Africa. Ending the regional wars in Yemen and Syria would undoubtedly be a great success, but it is difficult to imagine that both states will make such a deep revision of their policies and suddenly stop expanding their position in the region. This includes, for instance, Yemen, where both sides support opposing forces. If there is to be a thaw in bilateral relations, Iran would have to curtail its assistance to Shia-oriented groups fighting Saudis. In turn, Riyadh would be expected to limit strikes on al-Houthi fighters. Moreover, even reduced Saudi and Iranian involvement in proxy wars does not necessarily mean that peace could be achieved in those countries. Non-state actors, both Shia and Sunni, would still be eager to fight for their cause.

However, this does not change the fact that agreements of this kind, which pave the way for improving the situation in the region – if they are voluntary and based on sincere intentions – should be supported. Perhaps reality may be more optimistic than we all currently assume and the Iranian-Saudi agreement will become the first step towards ending violent and often brutal tensions that in recent years have contributed to a bloodshed in the Middle East and deepened sectarian differences.

Even partial stabilisation of the Middle East, including the Persian Gulf, would be beneficial not only for the region itself but also for Europe, including Poland. This includes, among others, a migration threat. In other words, further conflicts would generate additional streams of illegal migrants storming the gates of Europe. Secondly, only a secure and predictable Middle East provides an opportunity to develop infrastructure projects, including those related to an export of energy resources by the Persian Gulf states.

Author, Robert Czulda, Resident Fellow, Casimir Pulaski Foundation

Supported by a grant from the Open Society Initiative for Europe within the Open Society Foundations

[1] “Saudi Arabia exporter of terrorists: Majlis Speaker”, Islamic Republic News Agency, May 23, 2017, https://en.irna.ir/news/82542373/Saudi-Arabia-exporter-of-terrorists-Majlis-Speaker.

[2]“ Iran’s supreme leader 'the new Hitler’, says Saudi crown prince”, BBC, November 24, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-42108986.

[3] Aya Batrawy, “Powerful Saudi prince says no space for dialogue with Iran”, The Seattle Times, May 2, 2017, www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/powerful-saudi-prince-says-no-space-for-dialogue-with-iran.

[4] Luciano Zaccara, Tensions Between the US and Iran and the Role of the Gulf States, [in:] IEMed Mediterranean  Yearbook 2020, European Institute of the Mediterranean: Barcelona 2020, p. 92.

[5] Peter Baker, “Chinese-Brokered Deal Upends Mideast Diplomacy and Challenges U.S.”, The New York Times, March 11, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/11/us/politics/saudi-arabia-iran-china-biden.html.