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Iranian-Saudi Normalization: From Hostility to Cooperative Rivalry

Ties between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia are among the most complicated in international relations. Diplomatic relations between the perennial rivals have been severed for almost 10 of the last 30 years—a sign of their often-hostile disposition toward each other. Saudi Arabia, a predominantly Muslim Sunni kingdom, withdrew its ambassador from Shia-majority Iran in 2016 following the storming of Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad after Riyadh sanctioned the execution of Saudi Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. The administration of then-president Hassan Rouhani sought to reestablish ties with Riyadh, only to face obstructionism by powerful centers and entities entrenched within the Islamic Republic .

Window of Opportunity

The ascendancy of hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi to the presidency in 2021 granted Iran-Saudi relations a lifeline. Pundits and analysts agreed that domestic conditions within Iran had aligned to provide Raisi with a “window of opportunity” to normalize diplomatic relations with its rival. The most important of these conditions was the unflinching support of Tehran’s security and military organs—the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) first among them—which Raisi’s predecessor could never maintain.

A handful of nations as diverse as Russia, Pakistan, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman had offered to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh, but it was Iraq’s former prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who hosted five rounds of talks between April 2021 and April 2022 in Baghdad. However, a myriad of factors converged to thwart Iran-Saudi conciliation. The biggest stumbling block was, of course, the deep distrust that permeated relations between the two sides. Both Riyadh and Tehran pursued a zero-sum negotiating style and refused to grant concessions to the other side. Various ongoing regional disputes only served to reinforce this mentality. Iraq’s relative weakness as a mediator did not help matters; because Baghdad wielded little clout with either party, it struggled to make either side accept compromise.

Indeed, it was China’s intervention that brought an end to the seven-year deadlock and launched a new era of détente between the two powerful regional players. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Riyadh last December, only to be followed by President Raisi’s voyage to China in February, broke the ice. On March 10, Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), was pictured along with his Saudi counterpart Musaid bin Mohammed Al Aiban and China’s top diplomat Wang Yi, as the three men announced the normalization of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The China-brokered deal would see the two countries reopen embassies in each other’s territory within two months. In a joint statement, they also emphasized the necessity of “respecting each other’s sovereignty and non-interference with one another’s internal affairs,” their commitment to “exhausting…efforts to strengthen regional and international peace and security” and implementing security and economic agreements they had struck in the past.

It is notable that Shamkhani, who served as minister of defense in the administration of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, is the only Iranian minister to have been awarded the highest Saudi order of merit—the Order of King Abdulaziz—which he earned in 2000 for his outstanding work in bringing about détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In addition Shamkhani, later led Iranian delegations to Iraq and the UAE, part of the flurry of Iranian diplomatic outreach to boost relations with its neighbors.

Unexpected News

News of the agreement came at a surprising time, given the growing tensions between Tehran and Riyadh. Months after the eruption of nationwide protests in Iran against the death of Mahsa Amini, Iranian officials accused Saudi Arabia of funding foreign-based Persian-language news media and satellite channels—chiefly Iran International—which Tehran claimed had fomented the unrest in Iran. Tensions reached the point that in November 2022 U.S. officials speculated Iran was planning to strike Saudi energy infrastructure in retaliation.

What made the Beijing statement even more surprising was that as recently as 2022, during President Xi’s visit to Riyadh, a statement was issued calling on Tehran to cooperate with the UN nuclear monitoring agency (IAEA) and refrain from meddling with other countries’ affairs. The statement also included the issue of the disputed islands between Iran and the UAE in which China called for “bilateral negotiations in accordance with the rules of international law, and to resolve this issue in accordance with international legitimacy.” This was an unprecedented statement from China and undermined Tehran’s position that the status of the islands is not subject for negotiations. Beijing’s new positions pushed Tehran to summon Chinese diplomats to the foreign ministry to express its “strong dissatisfaction.” It would appear that China had dropped its harsh stance against Iran to secure the normalization deal.

In addition, the agreement came in stark contrast with a salvo of diatribes launched over years by a large number of Iranian military and political officials against Saudi Arabia. The tragic death of hundreds of Iranian pilgrims in 2015 Hajj stampede, and reported death of civilians in Saudi military operations in Yemen, among others, had inflamed anti-Saudi sentiments within the hardline camp.

The new development in ties between Tehran and Riyadh elicited a panoply of reactions inside Iran. Although critics of the Raisi administration gave an upbeat assessment of the planned resumption of ties with Saudi Arabia, the ruling hardliners sought to take maximum advantage of the accord by painting an overly optimistic image of Iran’s diplomatic success. Indeed, hardliners are trying to foster the impression that the Raisi administration has achieved a breakthrough in regional diplomacy by brokering détente with neighboring countries. State media, including radio and television that are run under the supervision of the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have run programs in praise of the current administration, attributing its success to the convergence of strong ideas and the effective marshaling of power by the Islamic establishment. State media has also heaped praise on China and Russia in an attempt to portray the Tehran-Riyadh agreement as an initiative that has undermined the international prestige and national interests of the Islamic Republic’s arch-foes: the United States and Israel. If one takes these optimistic assessments at face value, the agreement with Saudi Arabia could lead Tehran and Riyadh to work together to erode regional security partnerships that threaten the Islamic Republic. The damage to Iranian interests wrought by the Abraham Accords would be undone, and Iran would find its ties with other Arab nations like Egypt and Bahrain restored. To top it all off, the new Tehran-Riyadh partnership would lead the current security guarantor for many of the Gulf states—the U.S.—to abandon the region altogether. These analyses are as hopeful as they are unlikely.

Public Opinion and Media Reflections

Iranian and Saudi media outlets are equally divided over what exactly pushed the two states to restore diplomatic relations when they have. Saudi media highlight Iran’s economic woes and the various internal and external crises it faces. At the same time, the Kingdom’s commentators have cited Riyadh’s ambitions to improve regional stability and realize the economic goals enshrined in Vision 2030. Conservative media and their backers in Iran attribute the agreement to Iran’s growing regional influence and Riyadh’s waning influence throughout the region. From their perspective, mounting failures in Yemen and Syria, the Kingdom’s falling out with Washington, as well as its weakness vis-à-vis Iran in Lebanon have pushed Riyadh to the negotiating table.

State television in Iran has spread exaggerated and false statements about the foreign policy achievements of the Raisi administration while denigrating the veteran and seasoned diplomats of the Rouhani administration including Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was instrumental in the landmark 2015 nuclear deal. Two cases in point were the government-run daily newspaper Iran’s article “Fast Forward Diplomacy” and the government official News Agency IRNA website’s title “Europe Forced to Water Down Anti-Iran Stance.” Both heaped praise on Raisi’s foreign policy triumphs and even claimed that Iran’s recent agreement with the IAEA and conflicting reports about the planned exchange of prisoners between Iran and the U.S. as positive developments.

China’s New Role

Although public opinion in Iran remains, for the most part, suspicious of Communist China’s intentions vis-à-vis Iran, the temporary appreciation of the Iranian rial following the announcement of the Iran-Saudi agreement soothed the people’s worries. The unrelenting devaluation of the rial has put an extra strain on low-income households, plunging many into poverty. Nonetheless, many believe that the agreement with Saudi Arabia will not bring about an improvement in living standards because Iran’s economic conditions depend on Tehran’s relationship with the U.S. and Europe, not Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, moderate and reformist detractors of the Raisi administration, sidelined in recent years, have criticized the ruling hardliners and their radical supporters who set fire to Saudi diplomatic missions in 2016—the precipitating event whose damage the current agreement seeks to mend. They note that today’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia will likely not resolve Iran’s foreign policy challenges. Detractors also call into question the mediatory role granted to China, describing it as a sign of weakness of the Islamic Republic establishment. In their view, had the regime steered clear of sloganeering and mere ideology, there would be no need for China to broker a deal. This group of critics interprets the Iran-Saudi agreement as a return to the strategy of veteran and pragmatist former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, known as the initiator of détente between Iran and Arabs and the “architect of Iran-Saudi ties,” a hopeful sign that wisdom and pragmatism are gradually taking root in Iran’s foreign policy.

From Hostility to Cooperative Rivalry

The Iran-Saudi rivalry has touched every corner of the Middle East over the past decade, leading to an escalation of the regional arms race, the proliferation of terrorism and extremism, the persistence of the war in Yemen, the escalation of crises in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, and the intensification of ethnic and sectarian strife. Therefore, any continuance of the Tehran-Riyadh cold war would not only affect the two countries, but would spread to other regional nations. Other Arab governments have enough reason to warmly welcome this agreement; any easing of Tehran-Riyadh tensions could help end the crises in Yemen and Syria, accelerate the formation of a lasting government in Lebanon, and help Iraq overcome its internal political crises.

Nonetheless, it would be premature to describe this agreement as a new chapter in Middle East ties. It will do little to resolve the deep-seated differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia, particularly as both are intent on resuming ties out of frustration rather than out of sincere willingness for cooperation. On the one hand, Riyadh seeks to reduce regional tensions and may reach security pacts with Tehran to spare the Saudi kingdom any territorial threat that would be borne off any future confrontation between Iran and Israel. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has especially banked on ending the war in Yemen to focus on economic development within the framework of Vision 2030. On the other hand, Iran is grappling with its own economic issues, compounded by international sanctions and isolation. By reestablishing ties with Riyadh, Tehran may undermine foreign opposition to its government, to which the recent demonstrations have given new life. However, the Iranian side has also made it clear that Saudi’s regional ambitions conflict with its own, and Riyadh’s clandestine attempts to formalize its relationship with Israel may cast a shadow on the agreement.

Finally, a reopening of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia would not signal a transition from hostility to cooperation; at most, it would mean an abrupt transition from outright hostility to cooperative rivalry, which would ease tensions and supplant spiraling conflict in the Middle East region with a fragile and unstable peace. Many observers, even in the conservative camp, have warned against the repetition of past obstructionism by radical groups, recommending that political decision-makers in Iran learn from the harmful experience of 2016 and refrain from sacrificing sound foreign policy for short-lived factional objectives.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Ali Nejat is an Iranian writer and researcher specializing in MENA affairs. Nejat is a graduate of regional studies from Allameh Tabatabai University and was formerly the Editor-in-Chief of the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran. His works and writings have appeared in both Iranian and foreign publications including Al Sharq Forum among others. Mohammad Hashemi is a journalist, researcher and media consultant based in Tehran. Formerly he was the chief editor and producer at PressTV website, the Iranian state-owned English news, and documentary network (2015-2019). He was also a political editor at the Financial Tribune (2014-2015) and the Tehran Times (2010-2014). Hashemi is an alumnus of the ‘Heinz- Kühn Foundation’ in North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany. His work and commentary have been featured in Al Jazeera, Inside Arabia, the Middle East Eye, The Wire as well as Iranian media outlets, among others.

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