On March 10, Iran and Saudi Arabia announced an agreement, brokered by China, to resume diplomatic relations after a 7-year hiatus punctuated by unremitting hostile rhetoric and a proxy war in Yemen. Since the public announcement, international media have been churning out a flurry of commentary and analysis lauding China for its leadership role in bridging the gap in relations between the two neighbors, lamenting the depletion of the US global footprint as a mediator and prophesizing the Iranian renaissance.
To be sure, the deal was monumental as it pulled the plug on seven years of almost ceaseless tension between the two Muslim world heavyweights, which were reportedly on the brink of military confrontation on at least one occasion last November. The resumption of diplomatic ties between Tehran and Riyadh will certainly calm down a region that has been a tinderbox for years, and markedly decrease the likelihood of miscalculations that can result in unfavorable scenarios.
The rare understanding achieved by the two regional rivals is momentous and a catalyst for stability in the Gulf region. But it appears from reactions to the deal that it is being exaggerated as a historic diplomatic blockbuster, while it is, in effect, a retrieval of the status quo ante between Tehran and Riyadh, when they were endeavoring to accommodate each other, work on certain shared agendas, and avoid overplaying their differences. The agreement will not steer Iran out of its chronic international isolation, nor will it tangibly imperil global dominance of the US, as suggested by some commentators, and is a far cry from being an international game-changer.
Regional implications of Saudi-Iran rapprochement
The most immediate reverberation of the détente would be that the humanitarian disaster in Yemen will start to be mitigated, and what has been a deadly conflagration in that impoverished country will subside. Also, the cascade of bitterness between Iran and the Arab world that ensued the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran in January 2016 is expected to be undone. At that time, as a show of solidarity with Saudi Arabia, when its diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad were ransacked and set on fire by a mob, a number of Arab countries either downgraded or severed diplomatic relations with Iran, while others recalled their ambassadors.
There are now active discussions between Iran and Bahrain on restoring ties. The erstwhile fraught relations with the United Arab Emirates appear to have been stabilized, and the Republic of Maldives, a Saudi ally in South Asia, has also decided to resume diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic. Iranian authorities, satisfied with what they have achieved, are pledging to extend an olive branch to other colossuses of the Arab world and have broached steps to mend fences with Egypt, Jordan, and Libya, too.
Renewed ties with Saudi Arabia particularly give a lease of life to the embattled Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, whose incompetence and diplomatic ineptitude were the butt of jokes among Iranians in the early months of his administration but are now causing consternation and fury. Raisi’s excesses on civil liberties and lifestyle set the stage for what turned out to be the most protracted stretch of public protests in Iran since the 1979 revolution, following the death of Mahsa Amini last September, which plunged the country into unprecedented chaos. And his economic naivety yielded a historic inflation and decimation of the rial currency.
For such a troubled administration scouring for a breakthrough to convince a disgruntled populace that it is capable of effecting change, coming to an agreement with a regional adversary on reestablishing ties represents a public relations windfall. At the very least, a hardline president disliked at home and isolated on the world stage can claim that his government has scored a foreign policy win, and at the same time drive home to his more moderate opponents accusing him of isolationism that he is capable of coming to negotiated settlements with external actors.
As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, the Kingdom certainly favors a cooperative and friendly Iran over one that is truculent and aggressive. The Saudis had reiterated on different occasions that they viewed Iran as a neighbor and sought constructive relations with it. Riyadh has been caught in the crosshairs of Iran’s animus, which reached its crescendo on September 14, 2019, when drones struck the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities operated by Saudi Aramco. When the facilities were closed down for repair, half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production was cut, sparking mayhem in the global market. The Houthis in Yemen claimed responsibility, but the United Nations investigators attributed the attack to Iran.
With a pact that normalizes the bilateral connections and reinstates channels for official communication, such misbehaviors will inevitably be disavowed by Iran or its proxies. On top of that, an Islamic Republic that is notorious for stoking sectarian strife across the Middle East and North Africa and forcibly proselytizing its Shia ideology will expectedly change course, or at least come up with some amendments to its religious propaganda policies, if not a fundamental shift. It was in 2009 when Morocco severed diplomatic relations with Iran for the first time over Tehran’s attempts to spread Shia Islam in the Kingdom.
The landmark agreement is also striking in the sense that it brings China into the fray as a dealmaker that can leverage its robust economic partnerships with most of the Middle East countries to bridge the divides. Before the deal was announced in Beijing, Iran and Saudi Arabia engaged in five rounds of talks in Baghdad, at the initiative of the former Iraqi President Barham Salih, but those negotiations fell through. This means China was able to muster the necessary political will and truncate one of the longest-running cold wars of the region, even if this mediatory mantle is not one that Beijing conventionally assumes.
The White House response to the deal has not been one of overexcitement, evidently because Washington was not the power that arbitered the agreement, and because of its strained relations with the Islamic Republic. Yet, there is no reason to surmise that the compromise between two main regional powers in the Middle East will not be in the US interest. A contained Iranian threat means the United States can delegate the security responsibility of its Arab allies to their rulers and find an indirect route to addressing one of its key differences with Iran, which is its regional influence.
Iran, eyeing a more sustainable foothold in the Arab world, where it sees it is being supplanted by Israel, will probably refrain from explicit interferences in the internal affairs of the regional countries moving forward. At least, this is something it has committed to in its pact with the Saudi neighbor. The United States will interpret this understanding as a step toward applying the principles of its rule-based order in a region hobbled by rivalries, conflicts, and missing rules.
So, by all means, what has come to pass is a welcome development for the two primary stakeholders and any party that has an interest in a Middle East unshackled from division and feuds. Like any agreement on resumption of diplomatic ties, the outcome of this pact will be increased synergy in the region and a professed commitment to coexistence among nations that used to be at each other’s throats until not long ago.
But what is dislodged from the narrative is a balanced assessment of the pros and cons of the normalization deal. The debate is pretty much sentimental at the moment, and commentators are passionately giving interviews and penning articles describing it as an epoch-making truce ushering in a new order in the Middle East. It seems some observers are neglecting that like any international framework, this agreement also has its limitations and is not going to be a silver bullet wiping out all the problems in the Middle East overnight.
First, the Iranian-Saudi détente comes at a time the Islamic Republic is bogged down in a protracted fracas with the United States, primarily over the moribund nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the hard-hitting sanctions that have ravaged its economy. Even though some hardline ideologues have openly flirted with the idea of improving relations with the United States, which the former pro-reform President Hassan Rouhani was prohibited from mooting following the killing of the Quds Force commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the intransigent government in power is not even marginally interested in easing tensions with the US.
But it is not only the United States that is antagonized by the Islamic Republic. Relations with the European Union have also reached a nadir and Raisi has vaporized the bonds his predecessor had created, not only with the European trio of Britain, France, and Germany, but also with a large number of European Union states that had scarcely been in the orbit of Tehran’s partners. Since his inauguration in August 2021, President Raisi has not traveled to any European Union country, and if Europe’s last dictatorship Belarus is exempted, no leader from a continental European country has visited him in Tehran.
As such, Iran continues to be encircled by its lingering isolation and the accord with Saudi Arabia is not going to be a panacea to its unresolved problem of loneliness on the world stage. Even Russia, which the Iranian authorities have persistently ingratiated themselves to, especially in the aggression against Ukraine by lending Moscow profligate diplomatic and military support, continues to view Iran as a second-tier partner rather than a strategic ally. Iranians have long griped about the Kremlin treating their country as a colony.
Also, there have been hyperbolic assertions about China replacing the United States as the foremost broker of diplomatic arrangements, the departure of the United States from the Middle East, and the evolution of a new world order – one in which Beijing is on the ascent and the United States is in decline. Each of these statements can be construed as containing some truth, but they do not capture a comprehensive picture of the complex global relations, and are indeed deficient.
From Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 that ended Africa’s longest civil war to the Abraham Accords of 2020, the United States continues to retain its omnipresence as a facilitator of groundbreaking diplomacy. It is one of the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, which is striving to end the entrenched Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, a simmering war on the peripheries of the European Union that is garnering increased attention. Indeed, the United States was unable to do much to avert the crisis in the South Caucasus and prevent the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War from erupting in 2020, but the fact that it is a key part of the international architecture to resolve the dispute between Yerevan and Baku points to its centrality in addressing some of the world’s most stubborn conflicts.
The idea of the US shedding its role in the Middle East and leaving the region to China also smacks of aggrandizement. For years, the US military bases in the Middle East have been part of the region’s political reality, and despite drawdowns in Iraq as well as the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, there are presently between 40,000 and 60,000 American troops in the 21 countries in the US Central Command’s area of responsibility.
Eventually, conversations about a new order emerging in the world or the Middle East with the Tehran-Riyadh normalization tend to overstate the importance of what has been achieved. There are many flashpoints where conflicts are smoldering or differences are otherwise being settled, and the outcome of their developments can be determining to the world order.
Taiwan is a scene of stand-off between the world’s largest economies, and it remains to be seen whether China succeeds in sealing the unification of the island or succumbs to US pressure. In Haiti, on the US doorstep, gangs control half of the country and a humanitarian catastrophe has long been in the making. In the Sahel, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger continue to be entangled in a corrosive fight against Islamist insurgents and the future is bleak. And obviously, much of the global coalitions have shifted in the aftermath of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and it is certainly the end of the war that will dictate what the world will look like for the rest of the twenty-first century. Russia, which initiated the military aggression with the stated goal of averting the expansion of NATO, has now unwittingly precipitated the enlargement of the Alliance. From Sweden and Finland to Georgia and Kosovo, there is a line-up of countries aspiring to enter the bloc.
The Iran-Saudi Arabia deal comes at a time the Middle East is roiled by a slew of crises, sectarian tensions, and factionalisms, and it will play an indispensable role in moderating some of these strains. For one thing, it will incentivize the Islamic Republic to behave more responsibly in the region, and perhaps induce the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to ensure its actions are in lockstep with the decisions of the civilian government to avoid prospective flare-ups and the unraveling of the agreement. It also highlights the emergence of China as an ingenuous matchmaker in a tumultuous part of the world.
As such, it is realistic to conclude that the restoration of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh is significant, and that it will have implications for peace and security in the Middle East and beyond. But it would be a folly to decipher it as something broader than what it is. Iran is a country that has been hamstrung by years of isolation and stifling sanctions. Even its closest allies trade with it reluctantly and in meager volumes, and the government has no meaningful foreign relations to thrive on. The leadership has contented itself with being stuck in the gridlock of isolation, which is why its nuclear brinkmanship continues. The Raisi administration squandered two years on fruitless talks to revive the JCPOA without being genuinely committed to diplomacy. The options of such a state, therefore, are limited.
Hostilities will probably start to dissipate in Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia, but this is ultimately a bilateral relationship with finite global spillover effects. For Iran to be a persuasive player in the geopolitics of its neighborhood, it needs to embrace normalization with the wider world and tackle the sticking points that have burdened relations between Tehran and the community of nations. This requires making substantive decisions with long-term implications.
At the moment, the Islamic Republic’s pariah status has stripped the nation of functionality on the world stage, be it as a partner or a game-changer. As with the past couple of decades, the choice to be an integrated member of the international community or an outcast lies with the leadership in Tehran.
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