Eye on the Middle East | How the Tehran-Riyadh rapprochement holds out, a year on - Hindustan Times
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Eye on the Middle East | How the Tehran-Riyadh rapprochement holds out, a year on

Mar 15, 2024 05:36 PM IST

March 10 marked one year since Iran and Saudi Arabia entered into a Beijing-brokered reconciliation. Now the Gaza war presents new opportunities and challenges

In early January 2016, Iran and Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic ties over an incident that played out along sectarian fault lines — Riyadh executed Sheikh Nimr, a prominent Shia critic of the Saudi monarchy, imprisoned since 2012. Iran, which had advocated for Nimr’s release, allowed Shia protesters (some with alleged state-backing) to commit arson at the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, forcing it to shut. Both states then declared each other’s ambassadors as persona non grata and severed diplomatic ties. Given the Saudi influence, several other Middle East/North African states, including Sudan and Djibouti, followed suit in breaking their own ties with Iran.

Wang Yi (centre), a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee and director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, Ali Shamkhani (right), the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, and Minister of State and national security adviser of Saudi Arabia Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban pose for pictures during a meeting in Beijing, China. (REUTERS) PREMIUM
Wang Yi (centre), a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee and director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, Ali Shamkhani (right), the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, and Minister of State and national security adviser of Saudi Arabia Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban pose for pictures during a meeting in Beijing, China. (REUTERS)

Meanwhile, Iran was slowly gaining the upper hand in the Syrian Civil War (and the war against the Islamic State) with Russia’s newly declared support for the Bashar-al-Assad regime. Moreover, Iran and the United States were just beginning to feel the thaw in the ice, given the success of their nuclear deal. While Iran’s position in the region was improving, Saudi Arabia and its allies were mired deep in Yemen’s civil war against the Iran-backed Houthis. Riyadh also maintained that the Iran nuclear deal was “a flawed agreement” (and later celebrated US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal in 2018).

By 2023, given Saudi Arabia’s firm efforts to extricate itself from the civil war in Yemen, Iran’s desire to resuscitate the older Obama-era nuclear deal, and an evolving geopolitical scenario, China had enough goodwill in both capitals to don the role of power broker. Eventually, other Middle Eastern states such as Sudan also normalised their ties with Iran (after a more than five-year hiatus). Evidently, while both states have been increasing their economic relationships with China, the agreement also allowed for both to explore new avenues of trust in a new Middle East where after at least four years (in 2021) of Saudi Arabia and Arab allies blockading Qatar for its ties to Iran (among other things), Arab states made peace with Doha. Given their own evolving positions in the region and around the world, it is the regional aspect which has also allowed both states some commonality of positions.

Notably, the agreement in 2023 was a rapprochement to fix a broken bridge between two states that had cut ties. It was not an agreement that advanced cooperation between two states that have enjoyed warm ties underpinned by common interests. This instantly lowers the yardstick to be applied when analysing what the agreement has yielded. In so far as its objective of bringing the Iran-Saudi relationship to the pre-2016 levels, the agreement has categorically succeeded. However, the degree to which both states can take advantage of the new goodwill generated as a result of the prolonged negotiations and the final agreement is an open question.

On one hand, the obvious regional de-escalation has been a virtual cessation of Houthi rocket attacks from Yemen into Saudi Arabia, given that a halt on cross-border attacks into Saudi Arabia was a priority. Moreover, while in 2016 both states were on divergent geopolitical trajectories, in 2024 they find themselves aligned on key issues. The Gaza war has emerged as an unanticipated area of alignment, given both states’ current desire for a ceasefire. Moreover, as Saudi Arabia retreats from Yemen and refrains from joining any US-led anti-Houthi naval coalition, its focus has long turned to sustainable economic growth, evinced in its nascent interest in taking advantage of the lingering momentum of the Abraham Accords to seek normalisation with Israel.

On the other hand, the intensity of Israel's war in Gaza allows Tehran (which has been a vocal critic of the Abraham Accords), to couch its earlier disdain for Arab-Israeli normalisation within its anti-Israel rhetoric and its support to proxy groups; these include the Houthis whose attacks now focus on the United States and Israel. As explained in an earlier column, the Houthis' attacks against Israel placate sentiments on the Arab street which demand retribution for Israel’s disproportionate bombing of Gaza. Across the last year, following the Saudi-Iran rapprochement, Iran has also normalised ties with Sudan and Djibouti. Discussing the war in Gaza with Egypt in December 2023, Iran also actively sought potential resumption of diplomatic ties with the North African heavy-weight, even as Cairo grows impatient with Tel Aviv’s intransigence at the Rafah border (and its continuing operations in Gaza).

Yet, even as both states have discernibly reduced their mutually hostile rhetoric (and Saudi Arabia has reduced/halted funding to anti-Iran media platforms), it is the Gaza war which corrupts the purity of any measurement of success.

Given the common desire for a ceasefire, the war has allowed both Riyadh and Tehran to come together (using diplomatic and militant-proxy means respectively) to increase pressure on Israel. However, the real test for the Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement will begin only once a ceasefire is in place. On one hand, there is little clarity on the degree to which Iran and Arab states will differ on concessions to be made to Israel, given that Arab states might continue to have economic incentives for normalisation of ties, after the war, but Iran remains an outlier. On the other hand, Iran’s web of proxy actors has new-found success both in increasing pressure points for US troops and military assets in the region, as well as effecting an international pressure point in the Red Sea to influence global policy on Israel’s war in Gaza.

The manner in which these groups will display pro-active tendencies to continue disruptive behaviour after the war, thus hurting Arab interests eventually, is also an open question. Cumulatively, these contain the seeds of putting Riyadh and Tehran on a collision course again (especially with conservatives having been re-strengthened in the Iranian polity), unless both states institutionalise more agreements for prospective cross-sectoral cooperation and build enough stakes in their bilateral relationship — taking ahead the momentum of the rapprochement.

Bashir Ali Abbas is a research associate at the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, New Delhi, and a South Asia Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington DC. The views expressed are personal

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