International Relations

Understanding the Saudi-Iranian Reconciliation

Saudi Arabia and Iran, two major powers in West Asia that have been at odds for decades, agreed last week to restore diplomatic relations in an agreement brokered by China.

Saudi-Iran Ties: A timeline

  • Pre-1979: Saudi Arabia and Iran compete for regional dominance.
  • 1979: Iranian Revolution brings down the monarchy and turns Iran into a Shia theocratic republic.
  • 1980-1988: Iran-Iraq war sees Saudi Arabia support Iraq.
  • 1990-1991: Saudi Arabia supports Iraq against Iran in the Gulf War.
  • 1996: Iranian-backed Hezbollah bombs Saudi military housing complex in Khobar, killing 19 US soldiers.
  • 2011-2015: Saudi Arabia and Iran support opposing sides in the Syrian civil war.
  • 2015: Saudi Arabia launches military intervention in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
  • January 2016: Saudi Arabia executes prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, leading to protests in Iran and the burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
  • 2016: Saudi and several Arab allies cut diplomatic ties with Iran.
  • 2019: Saudi oil facilities are attacked, leading to increased tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
  • 2021: Both begin direct talks, brokered by China.
  • March 2023: Both nations announce an agreement to restore diplomatic ties, brokered by China.

Reasons for acrimonious relations

  • Saudi-Iranian hostility stems from a complex mix of historical, geopolitical, religious, and ideological factors.
  • Religious inconsistencies: The rivalry between the two countries dates back to the seventh century, when the Prophet Muhammad died without a clear successor, resulting in a dispute over Muslim leadership. This disagreement eventually led to a schism between Sunni Islam (which is dominant in Saudi Arabia) and Shia Islam (which dominates in Iran).
  • Geopolitical tensions: Both countries seek to exert influence and maintain dominance in the Middle East. Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979 challenged Saudi Arabia’s position as the region’s leading Islamic power, and the two countries have been competing for regional influence ever since.
  • Tensions between sects: Saudi Arabia and Iran have long held opposing views on the role of Islam in society. Saudi Arabia promotes Wahhabism, a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam, whereas Iran supports Shia Islam and the “Guardianship of the Jurist,” which holds that a senior Shia cleric should have political power and authority over all Muslims.
  • Ties with the West: The two countries hold fundamentally opposing viewpoints on a variety of issues, including democracy, human rights, and regional security. Saudi Arabia is a conservative monarchy with close ties to the US, whereas Iran is an Islamic republic at odds with the West since the 1979 revolution.
  • All of these factors have contributed to Saudi Arabia and Iran’s ongoing hostility, and tensions between the two countries continue to destabilise the region.

What are the agreement’s terms?

  • The agreement’s specifics have yet to be revealed.
  • According to reports, Iran has agreed to prevent further attacks on Saudi Arabia from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, and Saudi Arabia has agreed to rein in Iran International, a Farsi news channel critical of the Iranian regime.
  • Both countries’ foreign ministers will meet soon to finalise the terms of the reconciliation before reopening embassies in each other’s capitals in two months.
  • China intends to host a cross-Gulf conference of Iran and the six Gulf monarchies in order to further strengthen regional peace.

Why did Saudi Arabia reach out to Iran (despite US opposition)?

  • When Saudi oil facilities were attacked in 2019, the US turned a blind eye, prompting the Saudis to seek alternative solutions to the Iran issue, such as reaching out to the Iranians.
  • Disagreements over Palestine: The US was attempting to mediate a normalisation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel in order to unite the two pillars of its West Asian policy against Iran.
  • The United States neglected West Asia due to larger foreign policy challenges, such as Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific.
  • Relationships with the US are becoming obsolete: Relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States have been strained in recent years, as the United States is no longer as reliant on Gulf Arabs as it was during the Cold War.
  • Saudi Arabia has been hesitant to reconcile with Israel, and its relations with the United States have been rocky in recent years.

What led Iran to accept the deal?

  • Isolation and domestic pressure: Tehran recognises that relief from Western sanctions is unlikely in the near future. Despite the crackdown, protests in Iran continue.
  • Iran’s economy is deteriorating, and its currency, the rial, is in trouble. A deal with Saudi Arabia mediated by China could provide Iran with economic lifelines.
  • Iran desired Chinese investments and support for the rial. Iran was allowed to withdraw some of the $20 billion in funds frozen in Chinese banks as a result of US sanctions.
  • Iran is aware that such a deal could complicate American efforts to rally Arab countries and Israel against it. Iran benefits from reconciliation with Saudi Arabia, at least tactically.

Why is China acting as a go-between?

  • China is interested in promoting stability in the Middle East region, which is a major source of oil and natural gas for China.
  • Sidelining the US: By mediating a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, China can establish itself as a mediator and gain the trust of both parties.
  • Create a new axis: China has long-standing ties with both countries. Since Trump’s departure, the US has distanced itself from China, while China has also grown closer to Russia amid the war.
  • While the US is busy rallying the Western world to arm Ukraine in order to push back against Russia and weaken Moscow through sanctions, China is quietly brokering peace in the Global South.

The reaction in the United States to this agreement

  • The move was welcomed: According to the public narrative, the peace agreement will help stabilise the region and benefit the global energy market.

Key implications for the US

  • Hegemony Decline: Even though it is deprioritizing the region, the US does not want to lose its influence in West Asia.
  • Saudi Arabia is drifting away: The United States sees an ally (Saudi Arabia) drifting further away, a rival it sought to contain (Iran) making new friends, and China spreading and deepening its influence in a region dominated by the US historically.
  • Iran sanctions are being lifted: The Iran nuclear deal is nearly dead, and the US wants Saudi Arabia to normalise relations with Israel and form a united front against Iran.

What conclusions can be drawn from all of this?

  • West Asia is currently undergoing significant strategic realignment, with the UAE normalising relations with Israel and other Arab countries deepening their partnerships.
  • Shifted US focus on Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific: The United States, which has traditionally wielded significant power in the region, has prioritised Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific over West Asia due to larger foreign policy challenges such as Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific.
  • China filling a power vacuum: This deprivation has created a power vacuum, allowing Iran to emerge as a challenge, prompting the US to try to unite Israel and the Arab world against Iran.
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