Analysts said Friday that the surprise deal to restore ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran will reverberate throughout the Middle East and beyond, from the war in Yemen to China’s regional engagement.
The agreement calls for longtime rivals to “reopen diplomatic relations and reopen embassies and missions within two months.”
This ends the gap that after protesters in Shiite-majority Iran attacked diplomatic missions in mostly Sunni Saudi Arabia following the execution in Saudi Arabia of revered Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
Iranian National Security Council spokesperson Ali Shamkhani, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Yi, and Saudi National Security Adviser Musaid Al-Ayban met in Beijing on March 10, 2023. Source: AARP / Agency Nournews
Long before this incident, the regional heavyweights were on opposing sides in a series of bloody disputes, and recent bilateral talks appear to have made little headway.
That made Friday’s announcement even more surprising, said Dina Esfandiari of the International Crisis Group.
“The general feeling… was that the Saudis were particularly frustrated and felt that restoring diplomatic relations was their bargaining chip, so it seemed like it was something they didn’t want to give up,” she said.
“It’s very welcome that they are.”
Analyst Hussein Ibish agreed, calling it “an important development in Middle East diplomacy”.
Saudi “Charm Offensive”
The fallout from the deal could be most felt in Yemen, where a Saudi-led military coalition has been fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels since 2015.
A truce declared almost a year ago expired last October, but talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis in recent weeks have fueled speculation about a deal that could allow Riyadh to pull out of the fighting, according to diplomats monitoring the process.
Many analysts said on Friday that the Saudis would not agree to improved relations with Iran without concessions on the Islamic Republic’s involvement in Yemen.
Smoke billows as Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran January 3, 2016. Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to restore diplomatic relations and reopen embassies after years of tension. Source: AARP / Mohammadreza Nadimi/AP
“It is very likely that Tehran had to put pressure on its allies in Yemen to be more prepared to end the conflict in that country, but we don’t yet know what kind of behind-the-scenes agreements have been reached,” said Ibish, a senior fellow at the Institute of Arab States. Persian Gulf in Washington (AGSIW).
With rapprochement with Iran and possibly moving away from Yemen, Saudi Arabia could continue its wide-ranging diplomatic activity, which also included recent rapprochements with Qatar and Turkey.
It makes even more sense given the lack of movement to revive the Tehran-Washington nuclear deal, said Torbjorn Soltvedt of risk analysis firm Verisk Maplecroft.
“Without a wider easing of tensions between the US and Iran, Saudi Arabia knows it will have to play a more active role in managing relations with Iran,” he said.
The charm offensive could even extend to Syria’s regional reintegration, which Saudi Arabia opposes in part because of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s close ties to Iran, said Aron Lund of think tank Century International.
“At this point, it’s not obvious that these things are connected, but less hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran could lower the threshold for a Saudi-Syrian rapprochement,” he said.
China as the “godfather”
In addition to the intra-regional implications, Friday’s breakthrough is also important because of how it happened: China-brokered the talks, some analysts say.
Despite escalating engagement with the region, including Xi Jinping’s high-profile visit to Riyadh in December, Beijing has long been seen as unwilling to delve into its more tangled diplomatic morass.
Saudi analysts said on Friday that China’s role makes it more likely that the deal with Iran will be maintained.
“China is now the godfather of this agreement and it is of great importance,” said Ali Shihabi, a commentator close to the government.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (left) shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at an official welcoming ceremony in Beijing February 14, 2023. Saudi analysts say China’s role makes the deal with Iran more likely to continue. Source: AARP / Office of the President of Iran
“Bringing China, with its influence over Iran, to the godfather, the deal gave the kingdom the comfort to give Iran the benefit of the doubt.”
The deal indicates that China is ready to take on a bigger role in the region, said Jonathan Fulton, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“This could be a sign of his growing confidence in his regional presence, this could be a sign that he believes there is an opportunity to challenge US dominance in the Middle East,” Fulton said.
“In any case, this looks like a diplomatic victory for China and a significant departure from its regional approach up to this point.”
This will no doubt make Washington, which has a long-standing complicated partnership with Riyadh, “worry,” AGSIW’s Ibish said.
At the same time, US President Joe Biden’s team is likely to see the value of the deal in terms of regional stability, he added.
“The Biden administration has been leading the way in emphasizing the urgent need to promote diplomacy rather than conflict and confrontation in the Middle East and especially the Gulf region,” he said.
“Most likely, any reduction in tensions between Iran and the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf will be seen as positive.”