international analysis and commentary

The Saudi-Iranian rapprochement: a starting point with incentives and risks

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The Saudi-Iranian deal inked in Beijing not only restores diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran after seven years (promising to reopen embassies within two months), but contains an overarching message. After a long season of conflictual polarization throughout the Middle East, the kingdom and the Islamic Republic want to de-escalate to avoid direct confrontation. This is a win-win for regional powers and international players, due to the Gulf’s rising global centrality at the energy and maritime-commercial level. Nevertheless, unresolved questions are going to test the magnitude of the deal very soon, included its viability in third countries. The agreement is, in fact, a framework without specific (public) contents, and thus far appears as a starting point that builds on a single shared item: “non-interference in internal affairs of states”.

An Iranian newspaper with the flags of Iran and Saudi Arabia on its front page, seen on March 11, 2023

 

The joint trilateral statement (Saudi Arabia, Iran, China) omits the big issues that have divided –and continue to divide – the Saudis and the Iranians: Iran’s ballistic missile proliferation and its support to a myriad of armed proxies and allies in the region, and Tehran’s nuclear program. This vagueness suggests the Saudi-Iranian détente, which started in 2021, mirrors the current volatile geopolitical scenario, while not belonging to a long-term strategy for regional stability. For Riyadh, Tehran, and most of the involved players in the region, “coexistence”, and even economic cooperation, sound better now than “conflict” in cost-benefit national reflections. Something that highlights how much the Beijing deal aims to provide short-term gains for both states, while Gulf powers’ conveniences (included those of the Iranian-backed armed proxies and allies), could rapidly change in case of evolving dynamics.

 

Saudi Arabia’s economic goals

Inking this agreement, Saudi Arabia emphasizes the broader regional policy of de-escalation that has been ongoing since 2021, which is primarily aimed to enhance the economic strength of the kingdom. There have been several steps: the rapprochement with Qatar (the “Al Ula Accord”, 2021) after the diplomatic rupture, the boycott and the blockade; the reconciliation with Turkey (2022); the humanitarian aid to government-controlled regions of Syria after the 2023 earthquake; and growing informal relations with Israel.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), whose foreign policy is currently driven by the primacy of economic goals, had anticipated this regional trend. For instance, the UAE has re-engaged with Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria since 2018, reopening the Emirati embassy in Damascus. The Emiratis restarted cooperation with Iran in 2019 (although limited to maritime border security), and relaunched, after years of strong rivalry, bilateral cooperation with Turkey in 2022. The UAE and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords with Israel in 2020, and Abu Dhabi re-sent its ambassador to Tehran (August 2022).

As clearly emerges from this background, economic goals are guiding Gulf monarchies’ foreign policy choices. The post-2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings, in which sectarianism was exploited by Riyadh and Tehran for power politics purposes, seems to belong now to the past, although the war in Syria and the unresolved Yemen conflict keep their regional dimension. The main reason stands in the post-oil diversification processes, which cannot prosper in a context of heightened polarization, tension or even conflict. This has been resulting in de-escalation in the Middle East, as well as in the neutral stance with international powers, striking a delicate, but quite effective multipolar balance among the US, China, Russia and the EU.

 

Iran and the armed groups it backs: some incentives to the deal

For Iran, the diplomatic agreement with Saudi Arabia represents a triple achievement. Firstly, Tehran’s sanctioned regime can now aspire to attract Gulf monarchies’ investments – if the pact will concretely last – to mitigate the deep social effects of the long-lasting economic crisis. Secondly, Iran  can exploit the rapprochement to break the isolation that surrounds the Islamic Republic since the onset of the ongoing violent repression of the popular uprising, as well as trying to shift the dominant narrative about Tehran, at least in the “global South”. Thirdly, the deal disempowers Israel’s containment policy vis-Ă -vis Iran, as Saudi Arabia and previously the UAE have reopened bilateral channels with the Iranians.

The big question is whether the many Iranian-backed armed groups in the Middle East (proxies and allies) will really support the Saudi-Iranian agreement, or not. In other words, the point is whether Tehran is able to restrain its backed militias in the region: militant activity and asymmetric attacks by these groups against the Saudi and the Emirati territories could easily put the deal under great pressure. Some Iranian-supported armed groups have revealed a growing national agency, especially those actively involved in state-level politics (examples include the Popular Mobilization Forces, PMF in Iraq; Hezbollah in Lebanon), or in local governance (such as Yemen’s Houthis). Despite a rising role in national politics, pro-Iranian armed groups’ goals have not decoupled thus far from those of Iran. This would suggest they do not have, as of now, a specific interest in weakening the Saudi-Iranian agreement, while they will likely continue targeting American interests in the region .

For instance, Iraq’s government is supported by the Shia Coordination Framework (comprising the PMF), whose economic resources come not only from Iran, but also from the capture of Iraqi institutions by the Iranian-aligned militias. Furthermore, Syria’s pro-Assad militias, backed by Tehran, want the ongoing rehabilitation of the regime to continue, also at the Arab level, thus indirectly needing cooperation between the government and the Gulf monarchies. In addition, in Lebanon Hezbollah, who has just indirectly approved the Lebanese-Israeli maritime border demarcation deal, can build upon regional de-escalation to strengthen its position in political-institutional negotiations at the domestic level. The Houthis of Yemen are the only Iranian-related player who could have more interest in dis-aligning from the regional de-escalation mood. They are the most external ring of Iran’s armed constellation, dependent on Tehran’s weapons, but not on its economic resources. Over the past few months, the Houthis have been negotiating with Saudi Arabia to find a political solution for the eight-year Yemen war: in case the outcome would not be sufficiently satisfactory for the Houthis, they could easily restart attacks against the Saudi territory or maritime targets in the Red Sea.

 

The Chinese sponsor and the Arab mediators

Against this backdrop, it clearly emerges that the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement can have some possibilities as long as all the parties involved – directly and indirectly – think they can  benefit from it. For this reason, the implementation phase will be crucial, as will the role of the mediator. This is not a “Made in China” deal, but the result of a carefully built endogenous de-escalation process in the Middle East. Beijing played an important, final role in the agreement – and provided the signatories a prestigious stage – but the deal was indeed the outcome of two years of Arab diplomacy hosted by Iraq and Oman. Thus, China was mainly the “sponsor” of the agreement, as written in the statement: some sort of facilitator, rather than a mediator. China played a role in the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement since it cultivated neutrality between contenders.

However, Beijing’s third role in Gulf’s affairs will be put at risk in case of hurdles during the implementation phase.  For this reason, it is highly probable that the Arab mediators – before China – will be those mending fences between the two, still rival capitals of the Gulf.