Follow us on social

Iranian-Saudi deal: They didn't do it for love

Iranian-Saudi deal: They didn't do it for love

Taking stock after six months: 'The decision to restore relations was made by both sides with cold calculation.'

Analysis | Middle East


After seven years of severed diplomatic relations, the China-brokered renormalization deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, signed on March 10, marked a major breakthrough in the Middle East’s shift toward de-escalation between regional rivals. Nearly six months later, the Iranian-Saudi détente remains on track.

Last month, Iran’s chief diplomat, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, met with Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS, in Jeddah and invited him to Tehran. Then on September 5, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Iran, Abdullah Alanazi, who was previously the Kingdom’s ambassador to Oman, arrived in Tehran. That same day, Iran’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Alireza Enayati, who previously served as the Islamic Republic’s Kuwait envoy, arrived in Riyadh. Such developments speak to both sides’ interest in further improving bilateral ties.

As Ambassador Alanazi put it, Saudi officials recognize the “importance of strengthening ties, increasing engagement…and taking the [relationship] to broader horizons.”

Tehran and Riyadh did not sign the diplomatic agreement in Beijing after almost two years of Iraqi- and Omani-facilitated mediation out of mutual love. Instead, the deal resulted from their respective interests in détente at a particular time. Ultimately, hostilities between the two regional powers over the past decade were not serving either side. Rather than continuing down the path of steadily mounting tension, Tehran and Riyadh both saw a “cold peace” as their best option, albeit for different reasons.

Motivations for détente

Central to the Ebrahim Raisi administration’s foreign policy is the “Neighbors First” doctrine. As relations between Iran and the West continue deteriorating, Tehran wants not only to cultivate closer ties with China and Russia, but also have better relationships with Islamic countries in its own neighborhood, including with the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Central Asian states and Pakistan. Iran hopes this will reap economic benefits while better positioning the Islamic Republic to circumvent U.S. sanctions and pressure.

Riyadh understood that attracting sufficient foreign investment to make MbS’s Vision 2030 succeed requires greater stability at home and throughout the region. This made de-escalating tensions with Iran necessary, especially given Tehran’s influence over Yemen’s Houthi insurgents, whose drone and missile attacks against Saudi infrastructure had caused considerable damage until the April 2022 truce’s implementation.

“The decision to restore relations was made by both sides with cold calculation,” Barbara Slavin, a distinguished fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center, told RS. “Iran wants to prove it is not isolated regionally while Saudi Arabia wants an insurance policy against external attacks while it tries to realize its ambitious economic goals.”

Yet Tehran and Riyadh continue harboring suspicions of each other. From Iran’s vantagepoint, Riyadh’s partnership with Washington remains a major threat to Gulf security, while Saudi Arabia still sees Iran’s regional conduct as destabilizing.

Indeed, nearly six months in, the Iranian-Saudi diplomatic agreement has only gone so far. “It hasn't evolved into a real rapprochement, but that was always far-fetched as long as Iran is at daggers-drawn with Riyadh’s key strategic ally: the United States,” said the International Crisis Group’s Ali Vaez in an interview with RS. “The long shadow of the nuclear standoff between Iran and the U.S. will prevent the reestablishment of economic ties between Tehran and Riyadh and could eventually flare up regional tensions that could once again spill over into the bilateral relationship.”

The recent deployment of 3,000 American sailors and Marines to waters near Iran has only resulted in more threats from Tehran to the U.S. This development could have major implications for Iranian-Saudi relations.

“Like all diplomatic deals, the Beijing-brokered Saudi-Iranian diplomatic effort, is—at best—a work in progress,” Joseph A. Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Centre in Riyadh, told RS. “While many hastened to conclude that the two countries, under close Chinese supervision, would rapidly embark on fresh initiatives, reality stepped in because Riyadh was and still is wary of Tehran’s pledges to end its interferences in internal Arab affairs. (Almost) six months in, neither side seems ready to be blinded by lofty declarations, which often belie serious differences.”

Enter Israel

Saudi Arabia has thus far refused to follow in Abu Dhabi’s footsteps and join the Abraham Accords. Riyadh stresses that normalization with Tel Aviv would require significant Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, and with Israel’s far-right government that is currently in power, such concessions are unlikely to be offered. Nonetheless, trying to bring Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accords is a top foreign policy priority for Team Biden. It is worth asking how this stands to impact the Iranian-Saudi détente.

Depending on the degree to which there is convergence between Riyadh and Tel Aviv, there could be negative consequences for Iranian-Saudi relations. Ultimately, Tehran does not see diplomatic relations between GCC states and Israel as a threat per se. It is far more concerned with how the Abraham Accords could lead to a growing Israeli military footprint near Iranian territory.

“Iran will feel obliged to condemn Riyadh if it normalizes with Israel and will be on the alert for any military or intelligence component to such a deal. That it will not tolerate,” explained Slavin.

“Iran is afraid of greater military and security convergence of the Persian Gulf Arabs with Israel in formats such as the joint air defense system,” Javad Heiran-Nia, the director of the Persian Gulf Studies Group at the Center for Scientific Research and Middle East Strategic Studies in Iran, told RS.

“Iran knows that by forming such a system, a ‘balance deficit’ will be detrimental to it. For this reason, Iran has announced the unveiling of hypersonic missiles capable of passing through any missile defense system. Iran sends the message to the Persian Gulf states that expanding their relations and forming a strong convergence in the region with Israel will not ensure their security,” added Heiran-Nia.

Signs of improved ties

Looking ahead, certain indicators can help assess the evolving state of Iranian-Saudi relations.

As Iran and Saudi Arabia have previously enjoyed periods of détente, such as during the 1990s and early 2000s, Vaez told RS that “this one is unlikely to withstand the test of time unless it is institutionalized in the form of frequent high-level political engagement, standing bilateral committees that would proactively work to deepen ties between the two nations on multiple levels, and an inclusive regional security dialogue that starts thinking about a mutually tolerable and sustainable modus vivendi for all the key stakeholders.”

The main indicator of how Iranian-Saudi relations develop will not be the absence of conflict or disagreement, explained Aziz Alghashian, a fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “Rather, it is how both Iran and Saudi react to these sensitive issues [such as the Dorra/Arash Gas Field dispute and unresolved tensions over Yemen], what kind of language will they use, and what kind of sentiments will they have in negotiating these sensitivities.”

Roughly six months after the diplomatic deal was announced in China, Slavin has somewhat low expectations for improved bilateral ties. “I would expect an improved atmosphere for Iranian pilgrims going on the hajj and a modest uptick in sports and other exchanges, plus limited trade in non-sanctioned goods.” But she assesses that Iranian-Saudi reconciliation will be “very superficial.”

Nonetheless, as much as any optimism about a full rapprochement must be tempered, the current state of Iranian-Saudi relations is far more stable than the 2011-22 period. That is positive for the whole Middle East. The Gulf and the wider region stand to benefit, at least to some degree, from Tehran and Riyadh finding a way to “share the neighborhood,” as former President Barack Obama once put it.

“A cold peace is…better than the alternative,” said Slavin.

File:Saudi-Iran joint statement signing (2023).jpg - Wikipedia en.wikipedia.org
Analysis | Middle East
Will US troops have to  go to war for Mohammed bin Salman? (VIDEO)
Biden's Saudi War Obligation

Will US troops have to go to war for Mohammed bin Salman? (VIDEO)

Video Section

Even as the war in Gaza rages on and the death toll surpasses 35,000, the Biden administration appears set on pursuing its vision of a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal that it sees as the path to peace in the Middle East.

But, the agreement that the administration is selling as a peace agreement that will put Palestine on the path to statehood and fundamentally transform the region ultimately amounts to a U.S. war obligation for Saudi Arabia that would also give Mohammed bin Salman nuclear technology.

keep readingShow less
Following a largely preordained election, Vladimir Putin was sworn in last week for another six-year term as president of Russia. Putin’s victory has, of course, been met with accusations of fraud and political interference, factors that help explain his 87.3% vote share.   If this continuation of Putin’s 24-year-long hold on power makes one thing clear, it’s that he and his regime will not be going anywhere for the foreseeable future. But, as his war in Ukraine continues with no clear end in sight, what is less clear is how Washington plans to deal with this reality.  Experts say Washington needs to start projecting a long-term strategy toward Russia and its war in Ukraine, wielding its political leverage to apply pressure on Putin and push for more diplomacy aimed at ending the conflict. Only by looking beyond short-term solutions can Washington realistically move the needle in Ukraine.  Since Russia’s full-scale invasion, the U.S. has focused on getting aid to Ukraine to help it win back all of its pre-2014 territory, a goal complicated by Kyiv’s systemic shortages of munitions and manpower. But that response neglects a more strategic approach to the war, according to Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who spoke in a recent panel hosted by Carnegie.   “There is a vortex of emergency planning that people have been, unfortunately, sucked into for the better part of two years since the intelligence first arrived in the fall of 2021,” Weiss said. “And so the urgent crowds out the strategic.”   Historian Stephen Kotkin, for his part, says preserving Ukraine’s sovereignty is critical. However, the apparent focus on regaining territory, pushed by the U.S., is misguided.   “Wars are never about regaining territory. It's about the capacity to fight and the will to fight. And if Russia has the capacity to fight and Ukraine takes back territory, Russia won't stop fighting,” Kotkin said in a podcast on the Wall Street Journal.  And it appears Russia does have the capacity. The number of troops and weapons at Russia’s disposal far exceeds Ukraine’s, and Russian leaders spend twice as much on defense as their Ukrainian counterparts. Ukraine will need a continuous supply of aid from the West to continue to match up to Russia. And while aid to Ukraine is important, Kotkin says, so is a clear plan for determining the preferred outcome of the war.  The U.S. may be better served by using the significant political leverage it has over Russia to shape a long-term outcome in its favor.   George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft, says that Russia’s primary concerns and interests do not end with Ukraine. Moscow is fundamentally concerned about the NATO alliance and the threat it may pose to Russian internal stability. Negotiations and dialogue about the bounds and limits of NATO and Russia’s powers, therefore, are critical to the broader conflict.   This is a process that is not possible without the U.S. and Europe. “That means by definition, we have some leverage,” Beebe says.   To this point, Kotkin says the strength of the U.S. and its allies lies in their political influence — where they are much more powerful than Russia — rather than on the battlefield. Leveraging this influence will be a necessary tool in reaching an agreement that is favorable to the West’s interests, “one that protects the United States, protects its allies in Europe, that preserves an independent Ukraine, but also respects Russia's core security interests there.”  In Kotkin’s view, this would mean pushing for an armistice that ends the fighting on the ground and preserves Ukrainian sovereignty, meaning not legally acknowledging Russia’s possession of the territory they have taken during the war. Then, negotiations can proceed.   Beebe adds that a treaty on how conventional forces can be used in Europe will be important, one that establishes limits on where and how militaries can be deployed. “[Russia] need[s] some understanding with the West about what we're all going to agree to rule out in terms of interference in the other's domestic affairs,” Beebe said.     Critical to these objectives is dialogue with Putin, which Beebe says Washington has not done enough to facilitate. U.S. officials have stated publicly that they do not plan to meet with Putin.    The U.S. rejected Putin’s most statements of his willingness to negotiate, which he expressed in an interview with Tucker Carlson in February, citing skepticism that Putin has any genuine intentions of ending the war. “Despite Mr. Putin’s words, we have seen no actions to indicate he is interested in ending this war. If he was, he would pull back his forces and stop his ceaseless attacks on Ukraine,” a spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council said in response.   But neither side has been open to serious communication. Biden and Putin haven’t met to engage in meaningful talks about the war since it began, their last meeting taking place before the war began in the summer of 2021 in Geneva. Weiss says the U.S. should make it clear that those lines of communication are open.   “Any strategy that involves diplomatic outreach also has to be sort of undergirded by serious resolve and a sense that we're not we're not going anywhere,” Weiss said.  An end to the war will be critical to long-term global stability. Russia will remain a significant player on the world stage, Beebe explains, considering it is the world’s largest nuclear power and a leading energy producer. It is therefore ultimately in the U.S. and Europe’s interests to reach a relationship “that combines competitive and cooperative elements, and where we find a way to manage our differences and make sure that they don't spiral into very dangerous military confrontation,” he says.    As two major global superpowers, the U.S. and Russia need to find a way to share the world. Only genuine, long-term planning can ensure that Washington will be able to shape that future in its best interests.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during their meeting in Moscow March 10, 2011. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin/File Photo
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during their meeting in Moscow March 10, 2011. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin/File Photo

Playing the long game with Putin

Europe

Following a largely preordained election, Vladimir Putin was sworn in last week for another six-year term as president of Russia. Putin’s victory has, of course, been met with accusations of fraud and political interference, factors that help explain his 87.3% vote share.

If this continuation of Putin’s 24-year-long hold on power makes one thing clear, it’s that he and his regime will not be going anywhere for the foreseeable future. But, as his war in Ukraine continues with no clear end in sight, what is less clear is how Washington plans to deal with this reality.

keep readingShow less
Georgia bill passes: Why the West needs to stay out of the protests

Demonstration at Georgia's Parliament in Tbilisi on May 12, 2024, the night before the vote on a law on foreign influence. (Maxime Gruss / Hans Lucas via Reuters)

Georgia bill passes: Why the West needs to stay out of the protests

Europe

Mass protests are roiling the Republic of Georgia as tens of thousands have taken to the streets against a proposed bill by the Georgian government on “foreign influence” that has worsened tension in an already polarized Georgian society.

That bill was passed Tuesday after turmoil in which punches were actually thrown between lawmakers on the parliament floor.

keep readingShow less

Israel-Gaza Crisis

Latest