On March 10, 2023, the world was stunned by the announcement that the Gulf’s greatest rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia, would restore diplomatic ties. Concluded in China after two years of negotiations in Iraq and Oman, the agreement was penned by the Iranian and Saudi National Security Advisors in the presence of the Chinese Foreign Minister. The accord commits both parties to resume diplomatic relations in two months, to respect the principles of non-interference and the sovereignty of states in the region, and to revive the 2001 security agreement that once improved ties between Tehran and Riyadh.
The world witnessed several rounds of talks since the first meeting between the two states in April 2021, but it was the concluding session in China this month that paved the way for a meeting of Iran and Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministers and the ultimate announcement that the two countries would end the diplomatic deadlock of the past seven years. The March 10 statement gave observers few insights into the mechanisms that will resolve the two sides’ several outstanding disputes, however. Little information begets significant speculation, and it remains to be seen if the agreement will change the relationship of the Gulf’s most powerful rivals—or the regional roles of external great powers—in the years to come.
How could the Gulf states leverage this agreement to end the war in Yemen? What factors motivated Iran and Saudi Arabia to sign the deal now? What were China’s interests in persuading both sides to reestablish diplomatic contact and pursue rapprochement? How will the United States’ role in the Gulf or America’s relationship with Riyadh be affected by China’s entry as a meditator in the region? Will this agreement limit the activities of the IRGC and proxy forces throughout the region? Will the IRGC commit to any de-escalation or security coordination agreements signed between Riyadh and the Raisi government? In the wider region, will conflict resolution efforts in Syria and Lebanon also benefit from the recent agreement? Is this agreement durable, or will it collapse?
Featured Speakers: Dr. Dania Thafer, Dr. Abdulaziz Sager, Dr. Banafsheh Keynoush, and Dr. Kenneth Katzman.
Dr. Dania Thafer
Executive Director, Gulf International Forum
Dr. Dania Thafer is the Executive Director of Gulf International Forum, an institute based in Washington, D.C. that provides analysis on political, economic, social, and security issues for the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Iran, Iraq and Yemen. She is also a Professorial Lecturer at the School of Foreign Service’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. Her expertise is on the Gulf region’s security, U.S.-Gulf relations, and the political economy of the GCC states.
Dr. Thafer has been widely published and consults regularly on matters concerning the GCC and the Middle East. Dr. Thafer has a new book titled “Creative Insecurity: Institutional Inertia and Youth Potential in the GCC” published by Oxford University Press and Hurst Co. (2023). Additionally, she has co-authored two edited books “The Arms Trade, Military Services and the Security Market in the Gulf States: Trends and Implications” and “The Dilemma of Security and Defense in the Gulf Region.” Her commentary has appeared in international media outlets, including: The New York Times, Financial Times, BBC World, Washington Post, Forbes, Al Jazeera and others. Additionally, she is regularly consulted by governmental, non-governmental, corporations and research institutions globally.
Previously, she was responsible for building relationships with foreign dignitaries from the Middle East at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, DC. Dr. Thafer has a master’s degree in political science from New York University, and Ph.D. in Political Science, specialized in the Political Economy and International Relations from American University in Washington, DC.
Dr. Abdulaziz Sager
Founder and Chairman, The Gulf Research Center; Advisory Board Member, Gulf International Forum
Dr. Abdulaziz Sager is a Saudi strategic expert specializing in international politics and regional security issues relating to the Middle East and North Africa region. Dr. Sager is the founder and chairman of the Gulf Research Center. Dr. Sager is a member of various councils, advisory and academic committees, institutes, and international research centers. He is also a guest professor at several universities.
Dr. Sager participates in a wide range of international and regional conferences that address issues pertaining to the Gulf region. Notably, he has authored and edited numerous publications and has many articles in local and international newspapers relating to Gulf affairs and regional issues, and he frequently contributes to major international media outlets. He is also the editor-in-chief of both Araa, a monthly Arabic-language magazine focused on Gulf affairs, and The Gulf Yearbook.
Dr. Sager holds a PhD in politics and international relations from Lancaster University, a master’s degree from the University of Kent, and a bachelor’s degree from the Faculty of Economics and Administration at King Abdulaziz University.
Dr. Banafsheh Keynoush
President, MidEast Analysts
Dr. Banafsheh Keynoush is a scholar of international affairs, an international geopolitical consultant, and the President of MidEast Analysts. She is a fellow at the International Institute for Iranian Studies, a non resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, and a team member at the Carnegie-funded Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation Project. She also served as the Vice-Chair of the Middle East Forum at the Commonwealth Club of California. Her other professional experiences include advisory, public affairs, and analytical work for government agencies, international organizations, policy centers, and private companies across a multitude of sectors. An academic for over thirteen years, she has conducted fieldwork in the Middle East for two decades, including in Saudi Arabia and Iran, was a visiting scholar at Princeton University, and a visiting fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. She received her Ph.D. from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and completed her coursework at The John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Dr. Kenneth Katzman
Senior Fellow, The Soufan Center; Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Gulf International Forum
Dr. Kenneth Katzman is a Senior Fellow at The Soufan Center and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at Gulf International Forum. His work focuses on geopolitical and regional dynamics in the Middle East—with a focus on Iran—as well as United States strategy. In late 2022, Dr. Katzman retired from his longtime position as a Senior Analyst with the Congressional Research Service (CRS), an arm of the U.S. Congress that provides analysis and advice to members of the U.S. Congress in their legislative and oversight responsibilities. In that post, Dr. Katzman served as a senior Middle East analyst, with special emphasis on Iran, Iran-backed groups operating in the Middle East and South Asia, the Persian Gulf states, Iraq, and Afghanistan. During his more than 30-year tenure at CRS, he provided reports and briefings to Members of Congress and their staffs on U.S. policy on these countries and issues, and provided analysis of related legislative proposals. On about a dozen occasions, he has testified before various Committees and Subcommittees of Congress on his areas of expertise. He also participated in several congressional delegations to the region at the Member and staff level. During 1996 and again during July 2001—March 2002, he was assigned to the majority staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to work on Middle East issues, including organizing hearings and helping to draft legislation such as the Iran Sanctions Act (1996). Dr Katzman is also a Senior Research Advisor with the Global Insights Group, a foreign policy consulting firm.
As a well-known expert on the region, Dr. Katzman has delivered numerous presentations and briefings at conferences and meetings in Washington D.C. as well as throughout Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and South and Central Asia. He has also written numerous articles in various outside publications, including a book entitled The Warriors of Islam: Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (Westview Press, 1993) which was the subject of his Ph.D. dissertation. Since 2017, he has been a contributor to The Soufan Center, including serving as a key drafter of several of the Center’s reports on U.S. policy toward Iran. Dr. Katzman has been quoted frequently on the region and appeared in many regional media, including Al Jazeera, Al Hurra, Al Arabiya, Sharq News, Al Araby, and Al Ghad TV.
In recent years, Dr. Katzman has worked with numerous region-related think tanks and institutions. He has authored scholarly articles for organizations including The Atlantic Council, the Gulf International Forum, the Arab Gulf State Institute of Washington, and the Arab Center D.C. Among his earlier outside publications, during 1998, he wrote expert working papers on the ballistic missile capabilities of Iran and Iraq for the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States (“Rumsfeld Commission”). In late 1999, and again in 2010, the Atlantic Council published his detailed monographs on U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Dr. Katzman holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from New York University (1991). During May 1985—June 1989, Dr. Katzman was an analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, where he prepared written reports for U.S. Middle East policymakers on leadership dynamics in Iran, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf states. Two years in the private defense consulting industry followed his tour at the CIA