Wednesday 22 March 2023 - 06:36

Iran-Saudi Détente Agreement: Walking a Long Way

Story Code : 1048025
Iran-Saudi Détente Agreement: Walking a Long Way
Details of the agreement 

Despite the fact that the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia was inked in China, negotiations between the representatives of the two countries had been held in Iraq and Oman for about two years, and the two sides had walked most of the way, and the missing part was a finalization, which was made with Chinese mediation. 

In the text of the agreement, it is stated that in response to the worthy initiative of President of China Xi Jinping in supporting the expansion of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia based on the principle of good neighborliness and considering Jinping’s agreement with the leaders of the two countries to host and support the dialogue between the two countries and also the desire to resolve disputes through dialogue and diplomacy based on fraternal ties with emphasis on the adherence of the two countries to the principles and goals of the United Nations Charter and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Charter and international principles and procedures, Iranian delegation headed by Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani and Saudi delegation led by member of the Council of Ministers and National Security Advisor Musaad bin Mohammad Al-Aiban met and discussed with each other in Beijing from March 15 to 19. Under this agreement, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to resume diplomatic relations and reopen embassies within two months. 

Emphasizing the respect to each other’s sovereignty and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, the two countries also agreed on implementing the 2002 security cooperation agreement and also the general economic, commercial, investment, technical, scientific cultural, sports, and youths agreements signed in 1999. At the end, the three countries expressed their resolute will for doing their best to boost regional and international peace. 

Iran-Saudi Arabia diplomatic relations were cut off after an attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran by protestors in January 2016, and since then, the Saudis have repeatedly escalated tensions with Iran and have always accused the rival of interfering in the affairs of Arab countries, and even cited the Iranian influence in Yemen behind the devastating war on the already impoverished country. In the past seven years, due to the tensions between the two countries, the security atmosphere of the Persian Gulf was highly strained, and many regional actors made bids for mediation between Tehran and Riyadh for a secure region. Having in mind that Tehran and Riyadh are influential powers in West Asia, the improvement of the relations between them will have a significant impact on the regional developments. 

Following the détente deal, Saudi tone on Iran saw a U-turn. Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan said that the rapprochement was an outcome of two years of negotiations at the end of which “we reached an agreement based on respect to principles of good neighborliness and to national sovereignty of the two countries.... The two countries agreed on the need to eliminate all security challenges in the region based on these talks.”

“Iran is a neighbor and its prosperity means the prosperity of the whole region and we in Saudi wish nothing but good to Iran,” said bin Farhan. 

Despite the fact that the Saudi FM said that the agreement did not mean settlement of all differences with Iran, he continued that they will work to solve them through contacts and talks. Adding that the Arab kingdom found dialogue the best way to settle the differences, bin Farhan said he was looking forward to meeting Iranian counterpart Hussein Amir-Abdollahian. 

Also, Turki al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence, said in a statement that neither the US nor Europe could be honest mediators and guarantee an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as did China. 

“China was able to do this because it has good relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran,” he added. 

The Saudi Council of Ministers expressed the hope that with the continuation of “constructive dialogue” between the two countries based on the frameworks and principles contained in this agreement, the benefits of this agreement for the two countries in particular and the entire region in general will be achieved and lead to regional and international peace, development, and security. 

The reviewed Saudi stances on Iran even spread to economic investment. Saudi Minister of Finance Mohammed al-Jadaan said: “Stability in the region is very important for the world and for the regional countries, and we have always said that Iran is our neighbor and if the neighbors are willing to cooperate, there will be no interest in conflict.... There is no reason not to invest in Iran, and there is no reason not to allow Iranians to invest in Saudi Arabia.” 

Process of negotiations in Iraq and Oman 

Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia was escalating the tensions with Iran in line with American and Israeli policies in recent years, the course of developments in the region, particularly Yemen war, did not go as the Saudi leaders expected, and this motivated a review in their policies and a tendency to end the differences with Iran. Therefore, after six years, they started talks to settle their differences and resume ties. 

The first round of negotiations was held in Baghdad in April 2021, in which the Saudi delegation included the high-ranking security advisor to the Saudi Crown Prince and was headed by director general of General Intelligence Directorate Khaled bin Ali Al Humaidan. The Iranian delegation was headed by a high-ranking government official and included the representatives of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Quds Force and foreign ministry. According to media reports, the negotiations atmosphere was positive and exceeded expectations, and bilateral and regional issues were discussed by two sides. 

The first to third rounds were not publicized and some media only cited people with knowledge of the talks about details of the negotiations. The third round was started in October 2021 and unresolved issues, including reopening diplomatic missions of the two sides, were discussed based on the roadmap agreed earlier. The fourth round began in December 2021, with some of its details revealed by the Iranian side, showing that the process was moving ahead positively and constructively. Sometime after the fourth round, Amir-Abdollahian said: “We presented a series of practical and constructive proposals to the Saudi side, and the delegations of the two countries will meet in Baghdad in the near future and will take action regarding the implementation of the next stage of the agreements.” The talks also had minor achievements as Saudi Arabia agreed last year to issue visas to three Iranian diplomats named as resident representatives to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah. 

In the fifth round, which was accompanied by developments in the political and security areas, more details of the negotiation leaked, and Iranian officials also officially mentioned this issue. Both sides expressed hope for the continuation of talks and sounded upbeat about prospects of a détente. 

The fifth round was set to be held in mid-March 2022, but before it started, Iran called it off unilaterally, with some resources linking the cancellation to Saudi execution of 80 Shiite citizens. The fifth round started in April 2022 with Saudi mediation, but the Saudi side ceased the negotiations due to essential differences. After the end of the fifth round, the Iraqi foreign minister said that the two sides reached an agreement on a 10-point MoU. Fuad Hussein emphasized that Iran’s talks with Saudi Arabia also covered continuation of the ceasefire in Yemen, and it was also agreed that the next round of talks would be at the diplomatic level. 

At the same time as the political talks were held in Iraq, separate meetings were held in Oman between Iranian and Saudi security officials to work out a solution for the differences as soon as possible. These talks were described “positive and constructive”, and a large part of the gaps were bridged in Iraq and Oman-hosted talks. That is why, in the agreement text, the representatives of the two countries appreciated the diplomatic efforts of Iraq and Oman. 

In addition to the meeting of Iranian and Saudi diplomats in Oman and Iraq, Amir-Abdollahian met with bin Farhan on the sidelines of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s foreign ministerial summit in Pakistan in November 2021. In the Baghdad 2 meeting, which was recently held in Jordan, the two countries’ FMs held a short bilateral, with Amir-Abdollahian saying that he was assured about Riyadh readiness to continue negotiations during talks with his Saudi counterpart. 

Chinese role 

Although nobody thought that an Eastern power can play the main role as a mediator between the two West Asian powers, Beijing showed that it practically took a big step for more active presence in West Asia and Persian Gulf developments. Until recently, there was no news of the Chinese mediation between Tehran and Beijing. However, Iranian and Saudi officials said that negotiations between the three countries were held. A Saudi official announced that during his visit to Riyadh last December, Chinese leader proposed mediation to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the initial talks were held between the Chinese leader and bin Salman during bilateral meetings. According to this Saudi official, Jinping expressed his will for China to be a bridge between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and bin Salman also welcomed the offer. The Saudi official emphasized that Riyadh believed that Beijing was in a unique position to expand its influence in the region. 

The mediation offer came as before Saudi Arabia visit, Chinese leader had asked Iranian officials to have their say on a mediation. After the agreement was signed, Iran’s FM said that Jinping had shared his ideas with Tehran on a deal before Riyadh visit and when Iranian President Seyyed Ibrahim Raisi visited Beijing in February, he was updated about the Chinese talks with Saudi officials. Afterwards, talks were set to be held between Iran and Saudi Arabia. 

China’s role in these negotiations can be examined from different aspects. China, which is preparing itself to become a world superpower, needs the help of Iran and Saudi Arabia to realize its global projects. Iran and Saudi Arabia are part of China’s ‘Belt and Road’ megaproject, and Beijing officials are trying to resolve the differences between the two regional powers and implement their plan. 

China, which considers the Persian Gulf vital to compete with the US for to its large oil and gas reserves, is trying to form an alliance between Iran and all the Arabs. Therefore, in his recent meeting with the leaders of the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, the President of China made an unprecedented proposal to host a high-level meeting between the leaders of the Persian Gulf countries and Iranian officials in Beijing in 2023. 

Commenting on China’s influential role in the global developments, the AP wrote that China is emerging as a country that settles the disputes, not just sells weapons to the opposite sides. The New York Times wrote that the fact that the agreement was reached in Beijing was highly important for China and its emergence as a diplomatic and strategic player in the Persian Gulf. 

China, which has been in tensions with the US over economic and security issues in recent years, is trying to use the Arab distrust in Washington support in the time of need and the tendency of the Arab world to replace the US with other international powers to compensate for the security gaps to consolidate its foothold in the Persian Gulf. After announcement of success of China to broker an agreement as one of the most important West Asia and Persian Gulf diplomatic events, views that talked about end of the unipolar world order and fall of the already declining US hegemony began to receive acceptance and attention more than ever by analysts of international relations. 

Painful blow to Israel 

Though many countries welcomed the Iranian-Saudi agreement, Israel looked different and the Israeli officials and media voiced their concern. Taking advantage of the tensions between Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries with Iran, the Israelis in recent years have sought an anti-Iranian coalition through normalization pacts with Arab states. In 2020, Tel Aviv inked what the West and it call Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain to normalize relations, and in recent months, it sought to persuade Riyadh to publicize its relations with Israeli government, but failed. Tehran-Riyadh détente marked a blow to the Israelis, destroying all of their plans to bring Iran to its knees. The Arab countries aligned with Saudi Arabia announced their readiness to improve relations with Tehran after the agreement, and closeness of the Arab monarchies to Iran means moving away from Tel Aviv’s orbit, something marking the end of the Abraham Accords, to whose expansion in the Muslim world Netanyahu worked hard. 

Following the agreement announcement, Israel’s opposition leaders criticized Netanyahu for pushing Riyadh towards Tehran with his ambitious policies and bringing forth a serious challenge to the occupied territories. With the normalization agreement, the Israeli regime tried to legitimize itself in the region and break its decades-long isolation, but after this, it will sink further into its security cordon. This agreement is a disgraceful failure for Netanyahu’s cabinet, which arose as a result of Israeli weakness and internal divisions. 

In response to the agreement between Tehran and Riyadh, a high-ranking Israeli official said that the widespread breakdown Israel is witnessing in all dimensions will cause losses that will take years to repair. 

According to this Israeli official, the UAE cessation of purchase of weapons from the Israeli regime and suspension of any cooperation between Abu Dhabi and the Netanyahu government until stability is restored in the occupied territories is just an example of a collapse after a significant rise in relations, while other countries are moving away from Tel Aviv or at least suspending relations with it. 

From another perspective, this agreement can draw new map of relations in West Asia and beyond and this creates an essential legitimacy for Iran among Arab countries and can lead to restoration of diplomatic ties with such countries as Egypt. Although Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf Arab states covertly supported Israeli plans for military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities before the agreement, now the situation has changed and if Tel Aviv intends to take adventures, the Arab leaders themselves will prevent it. In other words, Netanyahu is left alone in the region. On the other hand, an agreement between Iran and the Arabs, whose biggest achievement is the establishment of stability in the Persian Gulf, will foil the implementation of Tel Aviv’s ‘Nile to the Euphrates’ project, and the Israelis have to return to the occupied territories with disgrace and humiliation before they can solidify their foothold in the region. 

In the past few years, thanks to the normalization, the Israeli regime gained a foothold in Yemen and the Persian Gulf with the help of the UAE, but the resolution of the Yemen crisis and other pending regional cases will tighten encirclement of Israel by Iran-led Axis of Resistance. This means that Tel Aviv will never realize the dream of gaining legitimacy among the Muslim nations, something ushering in a quiet Israeli collapse about which the Israeli officials have recently been warning. 

The US position decline in Persian Gulf 

Though Americans in belated remarks welcomed the Iranian-Saudi agreement, in reality Washington is angry and finds it a threat to its interests. For decades, the US fueled tensions between Iran and the Persian Gulf Arab countries in a bid to establish its long-term stay in the region and advance Iranophobia to sell billions of dollars in arms. But Iran-Saudi reconciliation will end the American fishing in troubled waters. 

Arab leaders have understood this very well that they can no longer count on American support like in the past, and that the US is gradually leaving West Asia, and in order to end the crises in the region, they have inevitably extended a hand of friendship to the Islamic Republic. By establishing stability and security in the region, there will be no place for American forces. The US anger over the Tehran-Riyadh agreement can be seen well in the country’s defense policies, as the Pentagon announced on March 14 that it will cut air force spending in the Persian Gulf in 2024 and allocate part of the budget to East Asia to contain China. 

Another important thing that worries the Americans is China’s extensive influence in the Persian Gulf. China, as a mediator, is another winner of the resumption of Tehran-Riyadh relations, and Beijing’s unilateral actions in helping West Asian diplomacy can sound the alarm for future of American role in the region. 

Some US officials have said that the renewal of Iran-Saudi relations with China’s mediation was a “loss” to the American interests.” In recent years, the Americans have tried to block China’s access to the Persian Gulf, but this emerging competitor has now become a bone in the throat of the US in the areas under Washington’s control, and this is considered a great threat to Washington. In the past year, the Arab countries have shown that they are moving away from Washington and closer to China, and the regional balance is in favor of Beijing. 

With the presidency of Joe Biden, the American relations with Saudi Arabia grew chilly. After the start of the Ukraine war and Riyadh rejection of Washington’s request to increase oil production in order to control the rallying oil prices in the world markets, Washington-Riyadh ties went further frayed. The recent agreement with Iran, and especially with the mediation of China, was a defiance of Washington because Riyadh began to define its foreign policy relations in line with its national, not American, interests. 

The Biden administration tried to keep the Arab countries in its orbit and prevent them from leaning towards Russia and China, but it seems that the Arabs themselves are on the path of separating ways from Washington. The decline of US global position in the past years showed that the time has come for China to play a role and it should take the leadership of global diplomacy. The US has been claiming for several years that diplomacy is the best way to interact with Iran to resolve its nuclear issue, but it has not taken any effective steps to this aim. But the Chinese leader settled differences between Tehran and Riyadh in the shortest possible time, sending a message to the Americans that from now on, Beijing will replace the West in settling international rifts and take a center stage in the emerging new world order. 

As experts believe, the US’s cold reaction to the deal on the one hand signals its frustration and on the other hand signals its lack of information on its details and contents. Therefore, Beijing has taken another important step to entrench its position against the US in the global game. 

“The agreement negotiated in Beijing to restore relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran signaled at least a temporary reordering of the usual alliances and rivalries, with Washington left on the sidelines,” wrote the New York Times in an analysis of the Chinese-brokered agreement. 

Iran-Arab relations improvement 

Saudi closeness to Tehran is not just about Saudi Arabia and such countries as Bahrain and Egypt are showing their willingness for a rapprochement with Iran as a progress is obviously emerging in Iranian-Arab ties. Countries like the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain are certainly regarded in the Saudi orbit and now they follow Riyadh domestically. Egypt is also a great power in the Islamic world, and if Iran-Egypt détente is its byproduct, it marks a significant progress. Bahraini and Egyptian authorities have announced their readiness to resume relations with Tehran in recent days, and with the return of Arab countries to Iran, regional stability will get new boost. In recent days, some informed sources maintained that important talks between Iran and Bahrain officials were underway at the bilateral level to resume relations. Al-Khalij Al-Jadeed news website reported that Bahrain will probably normalize its relations with Iran soon after the reopening of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. 

Jordan has voiced readiness to boost relations with Iran, too. Such postures indicate that regional states are eyeing an end to the rifts to unite their ranks against their common enemy, the Israeli regime. Describing revival of the Iranian-Jordanian ties crucial, the ex-Jordanian Minister of Culture and Youths said :”I predict that all obstacles to restoration of diplomatic relations with Iran will be removed.” 

Separate meetings between Iranian officials and diplomats of Oman, the UAE, and Kuwait were held after the agreement with Saudi Arabia, showing that everything is ready for cooperation between the Islamic Republic and the Arab states, and in the coming months, Tehran will become the center of regional diplomacy. Having in mind that China considers hosting an Iran-Arab world summit in the near future, further political and indeed economic, progress is expected in West Asia with Chinese mediation. 

Progress in settling regional crises 

Given the Iranian-Saudi competition in various regional cases, any improvement of their relationship will enormously help settle the crises in the region. 

One of the important cases is Yemen war, which is the biggest Persian Gulf crisis and has dealt the largest damage to the Iranian-Saudi relations. The two countries support opposite sides of Yemen’s civil war and very likely they have prioritized end of the 8-year war and during their 2-year negotiations, one major topic of discussion was Yemen. Some experts believe that in their agreement, Riyadh and Tehran have committed to end the war in Yemen, and in the coming months, the impact of the agreements will show itself. Also, after the deal, the negotiations between Yemen’s Ansarullah movement and the Saudis were resumed in Geneva for a prisoner swap, and it could be a prelude to the end of the war. Observers believe that the agreement will add to the already existing factors that are in favor of a solution. Iran joining the parties that are looking for a peace deal is a progress in Yemen case. 

Lebanon is another controversial case in Tehran-Saudi relations and with the agreement this case will see a solution. In the past three years, Saudi Arabia, along with the US, imposed sanctions on Lebanon under the pretext of countering the influence of Iran and Hezbollah in order to implement its political plans, but the Saudi competition sank Lebanon into a paralyzing financial crisis. Hezbollah and Najib Mikati, the interim prime minister of Lebanon, praised the agreement. Mikati called it an “opportunity for the region to breathe and look to the future.” The Saudi foreign minister said that Lebanon needed intra-Lebanese reconciliation to improve its situation, not the rapprochement of Iran and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, a few days ago, the Saudi ambassador in Beirut sent an important message about the characteristics of the future president of Lebanon to Nabih Berri, the speaker of the parliament, something indicating that the positions of the Saudis in the Lebanese case have softened. If Riyadh backs down on its stances in Lebanon, the political and economic crisis of this country will end after three and a half years. The Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia can cooperate to settle Lebanese problems due to their capacities and influence among the Lebanese political factions. 

Also, analysts suggest that Iranian-Saudi recognition works in best interests of Iraq as the country has been a scene of Tehran-Riyadh rivalry since the collapse of Saddam Hussein in 2003. In recent years, Saudi stance in Iraq was influenced by that of the US and the two somehow worked to curtail the Iranian and resistance forces’ influence and this is why the de-escalation of tensions between the two positively affects Iraqi conditions. Saudi media have been pushing forward a huge propaganda against the resistance groups in Iraq and Riyadh has been involved in the Iraqi insecurity as it supported intrusive elements to destabilize the country and challenge the strategic Iranian-Iraqi alliance. All these efforts met their failure, however. So, one of the reasons behind the Iraqi mediation was the security Baghdad expected behind a reconciliation. 

Syria crisis is another area where Iran and Saudi Arabia clashed, and it is likely they will increase their cooperation on this case, too. In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia took positive stances concerning Syria and a rapprochement with Damascus is not unlikely after 12 years. 

”A consensus is emerging in the Arab world on the need to adopt a new approach towards Syria, and we must find another approach... It is still being developed,” said Saudi FM recently. 

Diplomatic sources said that Saudi Arabia is working to host the future Arab League summit with participation of all Arab countries including Syria, and invitation of Iran and Turkey as guest states. Such a diplomatic arrangement can prepare the ground for Syria’s return to the Arab bloc to put an end to the Syrian conflict as the epicenter of the West Asian crises in the past decade, something proving that positive development in Iranian-Saudi relations can considerably influence the general outlook of the region.