A Beijing-brokered agreement for the restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been welcomed by countries in the Middle East – with the exception of Israel.
Under the accord Riyadh and Tehran will exchange ambassadors within two months, refrain from intervention in the affairs of each other, and implement 1998 and 2001 agreements on security, trade, investment, and science. Both have pledged to resolve disputes through dialogue.
The deal could end Israeli ambitions to draw the Saudis into an anti-Iran alliance and normalise relations with Israel, which Riyadh has rejected until a Palestinian state emerges.
UN secretary general Antonio Guterres has offered to help advance regional dialogue. US national security spokesman John Kirby downplayed China’s role, arguing the plan appeared to be based on US-supported efforts by Iraq and Oman. Washington’s relations with Iran have been adversarial since the 1979 fall of the Shah, a US ally.
The Saudi-Iran rift opened in 2016 when Iranian protesters attacked the kingdom’s Tehran embassy following Riyadh’s execution of dissident Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Hostility has deepened due to Saudi and Iranian involvement on opposite sides of the wars in Syria and Yemen, and in Lebanon’s internal affairs.
The deal could be a game-changer. On a global level reconciliation between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran could ease tensions within the Muslim community and encourage Western powers to reset relations with Iran.
On a regional level China has gained political stature and promoted itself as a neutral mediator. Analysts argue Arabs and Iranians favour the end of the unipolar scene dominated by the US and the emergence of a multipolar order led by China and Russia along with India and South Africa. Non-alignment could return as an option.
While the US is expected to retain its role as security guarantor for the Gulf states, they could choose between blocs on issues involving their national interests. For example, the United Arab Emirates has defied US-imposed sanctions, welcomed Russians fleeing the Ukraine war, and, along with Saudi Arabia, bought Russian oil.
After the deal was announced talks on a permanent ceasefire in the Yemen war began between the Saudi-sponsored Yemeni government and rebel Houthis, who have limited Iranian support. The sides have reportedly discussed a peace deal which could either reduce Saudi involvement in Yemen’s stalemated war or result in a comprehensive peace agreement.
Riyadh could push for resumption of talks on Iran’s nuclear programme, with the inclusion of neighbouring states.
When Christian politicians in Lebanon expressed concern that Saudi-Iranian rapprochement could lead to imposition of a president agreed by Riyadh and Tehran, Saudi foreign minister prince Faisal bin Farhan responded: “Lebanon must seek its interest and politicians must put the Lebanese interest before any other interest.”
Riyadh could reopen its shuttered embassy in Damascus and restore relations with Syria, which have already been boosted by Saudi financial and humanitarian aid to Syrian victims of the February 6th earthquakes.
Britain-based Amwaj media has reported that Tehran could be expected “to rein in the [Shia fundamentalist] armed groups it backs in Iraq” while Riyadh could urge allies still boycotting Tehran to resume full relations.