Understanding the Iran-Saudi Reconciliation Agreement
Historical archrivals Iran and Saudi Arabia recently agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations, ending seven years of bilateral estrangement. A lasting reconciliation agreement between Tehran and Riyadh would produce a profound geopolitical realignment in the Middle East—one with uncertain consequences for Israel’s long-term security—but most analysts agree that this change is unlikely to happen soon.
The normalization deal calls on Iran and Saudi Arabia to reopen embassies and consulates in each other’s countries and to resume economic and commercial cooperation. Iran also pledged to halt attacks against Saudi Arabia, including from the Houthi rebels it backs in the civil war in Yemen.
The agreement, a culmination of two years of closed-door talks sponsored by Iraq and Oman and more recently China, is strictly transactional and aimed at achieving specific near-term goals. Tehran hopes the detente will stanch its currency crisis; ease its international isolation amid the government’s brutal crackdown on anti-regime protesters; and sabotage the U.S.- negotiated Abraham Accords, a regional alliance aimed at countering Iran’s nuclear program.
Riyadh hopes the deal will increase its negotiating leverage with the Biden administration as the kingdom seeks stronger security guarantees from the United States, including help to develop a civilian nuclear energy program. Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also seeks de-escalation with Iran so that he can focus on Saudi Vision 2030, a $900 billion economic development plan aimed at radically restructuring the country’s statist economy by reducing its dependence on oil exports. The project’s success depends on regional stability to attract long-term foreign investment.
In an article for the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Middle East analysts Abdolrasool Divsallar and Hesham Alghannam wrote that the reconciliation agreement is not a strategic “grand bargain” but, rather, “a tactical de-escalation that serves mutual interests.” It “does not change the strategic calculus of either side in a revolutionary way” and is therefore “unlikely to significantly transform the regional security environment in the short term.” They concluded, “There will be many continuities rather than changes in Saudi-Iranian relations.”
The agreement is unlikely to fundamentally reduce bilateral tensions because it does not address the root cause of the Iran-Saudi rivalry, namely the ancient schism between Shi’ite and Sunni Islam that has dominated the region since AD 632, concerning who should be the rightful successor to Muhammad, Islam’s founder. More recently, Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, have been at loggerheads since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and subsequent quest for Shi’ite hegemony in the Middle East.
Iran analysts Saeid Golkar and Kasra Aarabi, in a Foreign Policy magazine essay, wrote that, for Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), restoring ties with Saudi Arabia is “the least important aspect” of the deal. “The long-term project of the Islamic Revolution has been to restore an Islamic civilization, with Iran’s Shiite Islamists at the helm.” They added, “There will be no practical change to [the IRGC’s] strategy, militancy, or support for its proxies and militia groups.” Golkar and Aarabi noted that Riyadh is fully aware of this and has few illusions about Iran’s dependability or the agreement’s durability. For the Saudis, the deal allows them “to pursue their primary goals, which are about building the economic strength of their country . . . with what they will see as enhanced protection against Iranian direct or proxy attack.”
One of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top foreign policy goals is to reach a peace deal with Saudi Arabia. The Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Center for Political Research concluded that the Saudi-Iran agreement will not block the normalization process between Gulf Arab countries and Israel. “The experience of the last two years proves that a dialogue between the Gulf countries and Iran doesn’t mean suspending the contacts with Israel,” it stated.