Awkward embrace as Iran and Saudi Arabia seal deal on restoring relations brokered by China

Awkward embrace as Iran and Saudi Arabia seal deal on restoring relations brokered by China
Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two major Gulf powers, last had diplomatic relations seven years ago. / Turkish Flame, cc-by-sa 3.0
By bne IntelIiNews March 10, 2023

The Middle East’s arch Gulf rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia on March 10 unexpectedly announced they have agreed to restore ties and reopen embassies following four days of talks in Beijing brokered by China.

Tehran and Riyadh severed relations seven years ago. The breaking of the deadlock between the two big oil producers will have analysts assessing what impact the new relations could have on prospects for reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, or JCPOA, between Iran and the major powers, and on the war in Yemen involving Iranian and Saudi proxies. The new ties could also have a bearing on how events now unfold in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, strife-torn countries where the rivalry between largely Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia is a big factor..

Reporting the deal to set aside differences in favour of diplomatic relations, official Iranian state news agency IRNA cited a joint statement, reading: “As a result of the talks, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to resume diplomatic relations and reopen embassies … within two months.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, greeted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after his arrival at Al Yamama Palace, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, last December (Credit: Saudi Press Agency (SPA)).

The Saudi Press Agency confirmed the agreement. It said the two countries had agreed to respect state sovereignty and not interfere in each other’s internal affairs. Riyadh broke off ties with Tehran after Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran in 2016 following the Saudi execution of the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. 

Nour News, a media outlet linked to Iran’s supreme national security council, ran footage of Ali Shamkhani, the council’s secretary, at a Beijing signing ceremony with Saudi Arabia's national security adviser Musaed bin Mohammed Al-Aiban and China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi. “After implementing the decision, the foreign ministers of both nations will meet to prepare for exchange of ambassadors,” Iranian state TV reported.

Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s foreign minister, said: “The return of normal relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia provides great capacities to the two countries, the region and the Islamic world. The neighbourhood policy, as the key axis of the government’s foreign policy, is strongly moving in the right direction, and the diplomatic apparatus is actively behind the preparation of more regional steps.”

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, left, shakes hands with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in an official welcoming ceremony in Beijing on February 14 (Credit: Office of Iranian Presidency).

The sealing of the deal in Beijing took observers by surprise. Talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia have continued for years, but mainly in Iraq or with intermediation conducted by Oman. What’s more, there has been friction in recent months between the Iranians and Saudis as they have jostled for position in winning favour with China. To Iran, China has become extremely important economically since the US four years ago began its campaign to drive Iranian oil exports off world markets. The Chinese have continued to buy substantial volumes of crude from Iran, working on the shadow market.

The Saudis, naturally, remain preoccupied with the issue of how to guarantee that Iran does not move into the military sphere with its nuclear development programme. The JCPOA, under which Iran introduced verifiable curbs on the programme in return for the dropping of economic sanctions, was seen to be delivering on that objective prior to former US president Donald Trump unilaterally pulling Washington out of the multilateral agreement in May 2018 in favour of deploying the heaviest sanctions yet faced by Tehran.

However, in the years since the US exit from the deal, Iran has gradually upped its enrichment of uranium to the point that the Americans say that, should Tehran take a decision to do so, it could assemble enough weapons-grade fissile material for a nuclear bomb within 12 days.

After the deal on relations was announced in the Chinese capital, the US cautiously welcomed the agreement. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the administration supported "any effort to de-escalate tensions in the [Middle East] region". But he added: "It really does remain to be seen if Iran is going to meet their obligations."

Israel did not comment.

After speaking in London earlier this week, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, was reported by the Guardian as saying he did not think the Saudis would have any additional demands as regards Iran’s civil nuclear programme than those presently outlined by the West, while adding: “I believe we can when we are at the table make it quite clear to the Iranians that this is not just a concern of distant countries, but it’s also a concern of its neighbours. Those neighbours would move into seeking better normal relations. So if we make clear that this is part of reassuring us, I think that may help them find it more acceptable to engage in such a process.”

One thing to Saudi Arabia’s advantage when it comes to relations with Iran is that Riyadh refused to join the Abraham accords that normalised relations between Israel and some Arab states in late 2020. The accords infuriated the Iranians who saw them as selling the Palestinians down the river.

Israel, meanwhile, has grown increasingly angry that Iran has been allowed to move to the point where it might soon be viewed as a nuclear threshold state. Hardly a day goes by without someone in the Israeli government warning that Israel would not tolerate such a status and would mount a military attack on Iranian nuclear facilities should it look like becoming imminent. The US is keeping its cards close to its chest on the matter, on the one hand advising all hope is not lost in terms of attempts to get talks on reviving the JCPOA back on track, but on the other hinting darkly that it would not stop short of joining bombing missions aimed at Iran if that’s what it would take to stop the Iranians from getting the atomic bomb.

For the Saudis, the decision to strike up new relations with Iran, via talks brokered by China, signals to the world that Riyadh will pursue a foreign policy independent of the West.

Prince Saud was further quoted as saying in London: “China is our largest trading partner. It is also the largest trading partner of most countries. And that is a reality that we will have to deal with. China, for us, is an important and valued partner in many areas. We have excellent working relationships across many sectors. But we have said and repeat this, always, we will look towards our own interests. And we will look for them in the west and in the east.”

With Iran already increasingly allied with Russia—sending combat drones to the Kremlin that are used in the Ukraine war and helping the Russians combat sanctions—geopolitical analysts will also look at what the new Saudi-Iranian situation might mean in terms of Riyadh potentially aligning more closely with Moscow. More cooperation between Moscow, Beijing, Riyadh and Tehran could spell trouble for Western capitals, and Ukraine.

As news of the agreement struck in Beijing came through, there were many in Iran who—possibly quite right—downplayed its significance, with some mentioning that perhaps it should be the Lebanese who are happiest of all as the deal might mean a bit more economic stability for Beirut, where the rivalry between Iranian and Saudi influences can be intense.

One analyst, who previously worked with the Iranian foreign ministry and asked to remain anonymous, concluded that the “deal is not as big as it seems,” adding that “symbolically it may sound big but strategically it doesn’t change how Tehran acts in the region”.

A former diplomat with the Iranian foreign ministry, who also asked for the withholding of his name, said: “The last Iranian leader who attempted to bridge the gap between Tehran and Riyadh was Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani [president of Iran from 1989 to 1997] and there seems to be no view that [current Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran] Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei has changed his position on the Sunni state.”