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Is carnage in Gaza bringing Iran and Saudi Arabia closer?

Is carnage in Gaza bringing Iran and Saudi Arabia closer?

Perhaps, but tensions remain and interests diverge when it comes a 'pan-Islamic' response to Israel

Middle East

The long-term impact of Israel’s Gaza war on the Middle East’s geopolitical order and security architecture will require far more time to fully realize. But one of the more pressing questions it raises is what impact, if any, will it have on the still-young Iranian-Saudi détente?

There are two major narratives about the effects of Israel’s military campaign on Tehran-Riyadh relations. One is that Hamas’s brutal Operation al-Aqsa Flood and the conduct of other Iran-backed actors in the region, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a militias, are heightening Saudi Arabia’s concerns about Tehran’s behavior and ambitions in the Middle East.

The other is that pan-Islamic solidarity now brings the Islamic Republic and the kingdom closer as both governments call for an immediate ceasefire, condemn the unprecedented destruction inflicted by Israel’s military campaign on Gaza’s population and infrastructure, and profess their determination to preserve peace and stability in the Persian Gulf.

Ultimately, there is truth to both narratives, which are not mutually exclusive. Although Iran and Saudi Arabia share some concerns about the Gaza crisis, Riyadh also worries about Tehran’s ability to exploit this conflict in ways that could potentially harm the kingdom and its Arab neighbors.

Aziz Alghashian, a fellow with the Sectarianism, Proxies & De-sectarianisation project at Lancaster University, believes that Israel’s war on Gaza will not necessarily have much impact on Iranian-Saudi relations. But he thinks it will put the kingdom into a “state of mitigation” in the face of Iran’s opportunism. While Saudi Arabia’s leadership views both Iran and Israel as contributing to the region’s turmoil, Alghashian said that Riyadh fully understands the extent to which Tehran will attempt to capitalize on Israel’s devastating response to October 7.

“Saudi does have its concerns over Iran’s opportunism and does believe that Iran is not contributing towards the stability in the region. And that is the Saudis’ biggest security concern,” he told RS. “At the same time, Saudi understands that the Israeli occupation and its indiscriminate bombing campaign in Gaza are part and parcel of this regional instability. While Saudi may have concerns and even grievances with Iran’s opportunism, I do not see the Saudi-Iranian tension spilling outside the confines of diplomacy and negotiations.”

It is important to recognize that, although both Iran and Saudi Arabia want a ceasefire implemented in Gaza, they are pursuing objectives for the “day after” period that diverge, particularly regarding post-war governance in the long-besieged enclave.

One of the major reasons why both countries aim for a ceasefire has to do with both Iran and Saudi Arabia’s economic situations. As their population continues to struggle under sanctions, officials in Tehran worry about how the Gaza war’s potential spillover into more parts of the Middle East could harm Iran’s economy. Saudi Arabia has its own concerns about what the crisis in Palestine could mean for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS)’s Vision 2030, especially given the extent to which its western Red Sea region, where many of the kingdom’s economic diversification projects, such as the futuristic NEOM and various tourism destinations are situated, is affected by the war’s spread and internationalization.

As two major Muslim-majority countries that seek to play leading roles in the wider Islamic world, Iran and Saudi Arabia’s share a revulsion at the devastation and death caused by Israel’s bombing and ground campaign.

On October 11, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and MbS had their first phone conversation since the signing of the renormalization agreement seven months earlier in Beijing. According to Mohammad Jamshidi, the Iranian presidential political affairs aide, the two leaders addressed “the need to end war crimes against Palestine,” Islamic unity, and Washington’s support for Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Furthermore, Raisi’s attendance at the joint Arab League-Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) emergency summit on Gaza, held in Riyadh on November 11, marked the first time an Iranian president has visited the kingdom since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad represented his country at an OIC summit in Medina in August 2012.

“Raisi's visit to Saudi Arabia was crucial for Iran, aligning with its strategic focus on Palestine and the pursuit of regional and Islamic leadership,” according to Talal Mohammad, who teaches at the University of Oxford and is the author of Iranian-Saudi Rivalry Since 1979: In the Words of Kings and Clerics (2022). “The Gaza conflict provided an opportunity for Iran to make the first move diplomatically. It allowed Tehran to overcome the ‘who visits first’ dilemma.”

“The visit was framed as an attempt for Islamic unity and solidarity with the Palestinian cause,” said Mohammad in an interview.

“It also allowed Iran to stand out among delegates [by] proposing a ten-point plan, although its suggestions weren't included in the final summit statement. Iran used the platform to advocate arming Palestinians against Israel and labelled Israel’s military as a ‘terrorist organization.’ In the current tense climate, Iran seems cautious not to upset Riyadh and is maintaining the Chinese-brokered détente by moderating its discourse and gestures toward Saudi Arabia,” Mohammed added.

Since October 7, Saudi Arabia has been central to the Islamic Republic’s diplomatic agenda, according to Hamidreza Azizi, a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “During this period, Iran's Foreign Minister consistently engaged with his Arab counterparts, including the Saudi Foreign Minister,” he told RS, in pursuit of two main goals.

The first, he said, is to solidify the Iranian-Saudi détente, and the second, to persuade Riyadh to abandon any consideration of bringing the kingdom into the Abraham Accords. “Tehran has also sought to use this opportunity to assert itself as a significant and proactive regional actor capable of influencing regional dynamics in collaboration with other nations,” said Azizi.

In reality, however, there is a limit to how much success Iran has achieved on this front, underscored by the extent to which Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s calls on leaders of Muslim-majority countries to go all-in on a boycott of Israel have fallen on deaf ears. Also, certain reports, if true, suggest that Saudi Arabia is merely delaying, but not abandoning, plans for normalizing diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv as Israel’s war on Gaza rages on.

As Azizi told RS, Iran’s efforts to establish a pan-Islamic regional order based on Iranian-Arab solidarity that isolates Israel have not produced the results desired by Tehran. Nonetheless, there is no denying that the carnage in Gaza has led to increased engagement between Iranian and Saudi diplomats, as well as high-level meetings that have brought together senior officials of both countries.

Over time, this higher level of diplomacy between Tehran and Riyadh could help lead the two countries toward better understanding of the other.

Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi (Fars News Agency via wikimedia commons) and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (US State Department)

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Israel-Gaza Crisis