GP Short Notes # 693, 19 March 2023
Saudi Arabia: Resumption of diplomatic ties with Iran
On 10 March, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to restore diplomatic relations seven years after the ties were severed. The delegations reached an agreement in talks hosted by China during 6-10 March. Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Council of Iran met Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban, Saudi Arabia’s national security advisor, in the presence of Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister. The Joint Trilateral Statement thanked Iraq and Oman for hosting multiple rounds of dialogues in 2021 and 2022. The foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia will meet to implement the agreement.
Regarding the practical aspects, the Statement mentioned that reopening embassies and missions within the next two months will be a priority. It also reaffirmed the commitment to non-interference in internal affairs, upholding sovereignty, and re-implement the 2001 Security Cooperation Agreement between the two countries.
The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres welcomed the agreement and said that this was an important step towards achieving regional stability. On 15 March, the UNSC held a meeting on the situation in Yemen, where the agreement was received positively. The UN Special Envoy for Yemen called on the parties to the conflict to carry forward the advantages of the agreement to ensure peace in Yemen.
The rapprochement was welcomed by majority of regional states/actors/territories including Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestinian Authority, Lebanese Hezbollah and the Houthis of Yemen. Israeli politicians denounced the development and the opposition blamed PM Netanyahu for failing to isolate Iran. Former PM Yair Lapid called the agreement “dangerous foreign policy failure of the Israeli government… a collapse of the regional defence wall” that was being built against Iran. The White House spokesperson remarked that Saudi Arabia informed it about the talks, but Washington was not directly involved in the process.
What is the background?
First, the breakdown of ties. In 2016, Saudi Arabia executed Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia leader and a critique of the kingdom, on grounds that he incited anti-government protests in 2011. His execution prompted violence against Riyadh’s embassy in Tehran. The protestors stormed the building, started fires, and Saudi accused Iranian government of being complicit in the attack forcing the embassy staff to evacuate immediately. As a retaliation, Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry announced severing diplomatic ties with Iran, and asked the Iranian diplomatic mission to move out of the country.
Second, walking a weak thread. The 2016 incident was not an isolated one, rather was a trigger for an official cutdown of diplomatic relations. A series of events showed that Iran and Saudi Arabia were at odds for several years. During Arab Spring-related protests in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for inciting protests, an accusation that the latter denied. In Syria, Iran backs the Assad regime against the Saudi-backed Sunni rebel groups. When the Yemen conflict broke out in 2014-15, once again they were loggerheads, and continue to be so till date. Saudi supports the internationally recognized government while Iran supports the Houthis. The 2015 stampede during Hajj in Mecca, which killed approximately 2000 pilgrims, fuelled the rhetoric further. Iran blamed Saudi for the death of 400 Iranians in the incident, and criticised it for mismanagement of the most important Muslim pilgrimage. After the ties were cut off in 2016, the four-year Qatar blockade, Hezbollah’s increasing political grip in Lebanon, Houthi attack on Saudi oil installations added to the regional rivalry.
Third, the reconciliation. Iraq and Oman played the mediator role and hosted multiple rounds of talks. In 2021, during former PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s tenure, Baghdad hosted the first direct talks, laying the foundation for more rounds of dialogue. Oman and Iraq both mediated the next four rounds of talks in 2022. Oman which acts as a host for Yemen peace talks, enabled Iran and Saudi to the table to discuss their most-destructive proxy conflict. Chinese President Xi Jinping met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh in 2022, and in February, a month before the current agreement, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited China. However, China’s role as a mediator was not made public until the release of the Joint Trilateral Statement.
What does it mean?
First, the regional impact. Lebanon’s PM Najib Mikati said that the agreement “is an opportunity to breathe in the region, and look to the future.” Indeed, most leaders hope that this is a positive beginning and an end to the rivalry that manifested through proxy conflicts. Though there is a relative calm except in a few pockets such as Ta’iz and Ma’rib, the eight-year Yemen conflict is yet to find an end. A revival of ties between Iran and Saudi is a hope for concrete peace, and probably will be one of the priorities on the agenda. The UN-brokered truce has expired in Yemen, yet Saudi is now directly talking to the Houthi leadership. However, the conflict is a complex one, with multiple actors and interests involved. The reconciliation can provide a breakthrough, but the conflict cannot end until domestic actors consider peace as an option in Yemen.
In Syria, Saudi and Iran support opposing sides. Indicating a change, the Arab states are warming up to President Bashar al-Assad in recent times. Direct talks, and visits have increased since the earthquake struck Turkey and Syria in February this year. The reconciliation can provide impetus to re-integrating Syria into the regional fold after a long period of isolation. In Iraq, Iran’s strong political hold has often dissuaded Saudi Arabia’s investments. It is in Iraq’s interest to see Tehran and Riyadh talking. The impact of the agreement is yet to be seen in Lebanon’s case. Saudi Arabia’s political landscape might improve, but Iran may not be ready to give up its political gains made through Hezbollah.
Second, Israel’s tricky position. Israel works towards containing and isolating Iran and has lobbied strongly for it in the case of JCPOA. It has also regularly targeted Iranian installations, armament supplies and affiliated groups in Lebanon and Syria by conducting air strikes. However, Saudi Arabia talking to Iran has started a political blame game in Tel Aviv, projected as a failure of Netanyahu’s government. In his previous tenure, Netanyahu showcased Abraham Accords as his government’s most important success, and aimed for normalization with Saudi. But with Iran and Saudi warming up, it may not be an easy path to tread.
Third, waves of ground-breaking diplomacy. The Abraham Accords aimed at integrating Israel in the region. Iran and Saudi resuming talks, looks for bilateral and regional peace. The two comprehensive diplomatic initiatives in Middle East in recent years, are the defining moments in the foreign policies of many states involved. With both initiatives working simultaneously, it is clear that some regional actors are willing to engage with Israel and also not favour an isolated Iran.
Fourth, China’s role as a negotiator. A China-brokered regional détente indicates its new role in the region where the US has been the most dominant external power. Though Saudi is one of US’ closest allies, the latter could not be involved due to the absence of direct talks with Iran. China stands the most benefitted in the process- it has cemented its larger political presence in Middle East, and positioned itself as a power that can talk to rivals and bring them to the negotiating table.