What to know about the Iran-Saudi deal
Iran and Saudi Arabia’s announcement of resuming diplomatic relations could lead to a sea change in the Middle East. It also represents a geopolitical challenge for the United States and a victory for China, which brokered talks between the two longtime rivals.
Under the deal announced on Friday, Iran and Saudi Arabia will reconcile a seven-year split by relaunching a security cooperation pact, reopening embassies in each other’s countries within two months, and resuming trade, investment and cultural deals . But the rivalry between the two Persian Gulf states is so deeply rooted in disagreements over religion and politics that simple diplomatic engagement may not be able to overcome it.
Here’s a look at some of the key questions surrounding the deal.
Why is that important?
The new diplomatic engagement could upset geopolitics in the Middle East and beyond, linking Saudi Arabia, a close United States partner, with Iran, a long-time enemy that Washington and its allies view as a security threat and a source of global instability.
In the years since, Saudi Arabia has encouraged a harsh Western response to Iran’s nuclear program, even establishing diplomatic back channels with Israel, the Middle East’s strongest anti-Iran force, in part to coordinate ways to deal with the threat to counter through Tehran.
How the breakthrough announced on Friday would affect Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Israeli and American efforts to counter Iran was not immediately clear. But the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two regional powers marked, at least in part, a thaw in a Cold War that has long defined the Middle East.
What could be the impact in the Middle East?
Since the severing of diplomatic ties in 2016, leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia have regularly denounced each other. Tehran has accused the Saudis of backing terrorist groups like Islamic State, and Saudi Arabia has blasted Iran’s support for a network of armed militias in the Middle East.
Saudi-Iranian rivalry has underpinned conflicts in the Middle East, including Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
While the breakthrough announced on Friday surprised many observers, Saudi and Iranian intelligence chiefs have met in Iraq in recent years to discuss regional security. More formal diplomatic engagement could provide opportunities for the two regional powers to make further progress in cooling regional trouble spots.
What role did China play?
Iran and Saudi Arabia announced the deal after talks hosted by China. Beijing has ties with both Middle Eastern countries, and the breakthrough underscores its growing political and economic clout in the region, which has long been dominated by the United States.
Xi Jinping, China’s leader, visited Riyadh, the Saudi capital, in December, a state visit celebrated by Saudi officials, who often complain that their American allies are withdrawing.
“China wants stability in the region as it gets more than 40 percent of its energy from the Gulf and tensions between the two threaten its interests,” said Jonathan Fulton, a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
Regional leaders have also expressed appreciation that China, which maintains a policy of “non-interference” in other countries’ affairs, avoids criticizing their domestic policies, and has not in the past dispatched its military to harass unfriendly dictators overthrow.
The announcement also reflects China’s desire to play a larger diplomatic role on the world stage. Beijing unveiled a so-called “Global Security Initiative” and last month unveiled a peace plan for Ukraine. Both the security initiative and the Ukraine proposal have been criticized in the West for lacking concrete ideas and promoting Chinese interests.
What could this mean for the US?
News of the agreement, and in particular Beijing’s role in mediation, alarmed foreign policy hawks in Washington.
“Renewed Iranian-Saudi ties as a result of Chinese mediation are a loss, loss, loss to American interests,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank that supports tough policies on Iran and China .
He said this shows that Saudi Arabia lacks confidence in Washington, that Iran can withdraw US allies to ease its isolation, and that China “is becoming the domino of power politics in the Middle East.”
But ultimately, if the deal eases tensions in the region, it could bode well for a Biden administration that has its hands full with the war in Ukraine and a deepening superpower rivalry with China.
Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, a Washington group that supports US restraint abroad, said: “While many in Washington will see China’s emerging role as a Middle East mediator as a threat, the reality looks like it is this another A stable Middle East, where Iranians and Saudis don’t at each other’s throats, also benefits the United States.”
The White House dismissed the idea that China would fill a void left by the United States in the Middle East. “We support any efforts there to de-escalate tensions in the region,” said John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
However, he questioned Iran’s commitment to genuine rapprochement with a long-time adversary.
“It really remains to be seen whether the Iranians will honor their side of the deal,” Kirby said. “This is not a regime that normally honors its word. So we hope they do.”
What could this mean for Israel?
The news sparked surprise and concern in Israel, which has no formal ties with Iran or Saudi Arabia. But while the Israeli leadership sees Iran as an enemy and an existential threat, it sees Saudi Arabia as a potential partner. And they had hoped that shared fears of Tehran could help Israel forge ties with Riyadh.
Still, Israeli analysts on Iran and Gulf affairs said the deal was not entirely disastrous for Israeli interests. Although it undermines Israeli hopes of forming a regional alliance against Iran, it could still, perhaps counterintuitively, allow for greater cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Despite the normalization of relations, Saudi Arabia may continue to view Iran as an adversary and consider a closer partnership with Israel, particularly on military and cybersecurity issues, as another way to mitigate this threat.
The announcement prompted some Israeli politicians to introspect their country’s internal divisions. Some said the restoration of Saudi-Iranian ties highlighted how domestic unrest could distract the government from more pressing concerns like Iran.
What are the obstacles to a real thaw in relationships?
Saudi Arabia and Iran are world leaders in the two largest sects of Islam, with Saudi Arabia seeing itself as the guardian of the Sunnis and Iran assuming a similar role for the Shia.
Leaders in Tehran routinely criticize Saudi Arabia’s close ties with the United States and accuse the kingdom of doing the West’s bidding in the Middle East. And Iran has invested heavily in building a network of armed militias across the region in an effort to bolster its own security and project clout. Saudi Arabia views this network as a threat not only to its own security but also to the broader regional order.
Other areas of strong disagreement include the role of Shiite militias in Iraq and Lebanon, which Iran supports to bolster its regional influence, and Saudi Arabia says it weakens those countries.
The future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom the Saudis wanted to help overthrow and whom Iran helped stay in power, is another dividing line.
Resolving the war in Yemen is another major bone of contention, as Iran backs the Houthi rebels, whose advances prompted Saudi Arabia to launch broad military intervention in the conflict to try to push them back.
What could be behind the Saudi move?
For decades, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy was relatively predictable. But Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman turned those expectations on their head when he began seizing power in 2015, intervening in Yemen’s civil war, severing ties with neighboring Qatar and kidnapping the Lebanese prime minister and urging him to resign.
He has recently demonstrated a more pragmatic approach, repairing rifts with Qatar, defusing tensions with Turkey and holding peace talks in Yemen. The prince’s move towards regional reconciliation is fueled in part by the challenges he faces at home as he seeks to overhaul almost every aspect of life in Saudi Arabia.
His Vision 2030 plan calls for the diversification of the oil-dependent economy by attracting tourism and foreign investment, attracting millions of expatriates to the kingdom and making it a global center for business and culture. Calming regional tensions is central to this vision, but it is also driven by his desire to make Saudi Arabia a global power and make it less dependent on the United States.
That doesn’t mean replacing the United States, which still supplies the vast majority of Saudi Arabia’s weapons and defense systems — at least not anytime soon. But the prince has been looking for ways to develop deeper ties with other world powers like China, India and Russia.
Reporting was contributed by Vivian Nereim, David Pierson, Christopher Buckley, Michael Croley, Patrick Kingsley And Zolan Kanno Youngs.
https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/10/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-iran-deal-explained.html What to know about the Iran-Saudi deal