Two of the heavyweights of the Middle East are turning the page of seven years of estrangement. Iran and Saudi Arabia announced Friday the restoration of their diplomatic relations, at the end of five days of talks between the leaders of the two countries, in China.
They announced in a joint press release the reopening of their respective embassies within two months. Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran severed ties in 2016 after protesters in the Islamic Republic attacked Saudi diplomatic missions following Riyadh’s execution of a famous Shia cleric, Nimr al- Nimr.
Above all, Tehran and Riyadh were at loggerheads because of antagonistic alliances and enmities in the region, reflecting their more general rivalry: the two countries are both the main producers of hydrocarbons in the Persian Gulf and major references Islam in the world – Sunni for Riyadh, home to the holiest places in the Muslim world, in Mecca and Medina, and Shia for Tehran.
Other Gulf countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain, subsequently reduced diplomatic ties with Tehran to support Riyadh. In recent months, however, the Emirates and Kuwait have resumed diplomatic relations with Iran.
The announcement of a restoration of relations between the two powers completes a year of less and less secret negotiations, since mid-2021. “This represents a huge game-changer,” said Sanam Vakil, an analyst at the Chatham House think tank, because “Riyadh had to admit that its policy of isolating and containing Iran had failed to serve its own interests”. The Islamist regime could also have an interest in creating a little diplomatic space, since it has few allies, apart from Russia and China, and can hardly export oil because of the sanctions imposed by the American administration, in 2018, because of its nuclear program with presumably military aims. The mullahs’ regime has also been destabilized since September, internally, by a revolt linked to the obligation to wear the Islamic veil for women.
Restoring diplomatic relations, however, is not yet a full reconciliation, warns Sanam Vakil, but rather a roadmap that will allow the two countries to directly manage their tensions and avoid further incidents.
Yemen at the heart of the discussions
Iran has a preponderant influence in Iraq and Lebanon and supports the Syrian regime in the civil war that began in 2012 against armed groups initially allied with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is also influential in Lebanon, and has led a coalition of around ten Arab countries in Yemen since 2015, most of which later disengaged against the Houthi rebels aided by Tehran. The Saudi engagement, at the cost of war crimes, resulted in no significant gains for Riyadh and even exposed its key oil infrastructure to threats from Houthi drones. A salvo of which in 2019 had hit the Abqaiq site, despite an American Patriot battery, blocking half of the kingdom’s production capacity for a few days. Saudi Arabia and Iran were then on the verge of a direct battle.
Saudi Arabia’s priority is to achieve a permanent ceasefire in Yemen, said Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan. This war would have killed around 500,000 people in a country of 33 million inhabitants and set the development of Yemen back twenty years.
China is involved, not the United States
This beginning of reconciliation is part of a broader movement of rapprochement between former enemies in the Middle East, illustrated by the establishment of official ties between Israel and a number of Arab countries since 2019 (normalization which has not been extended to the Saudi Arabia, although Riyadh and Jerusalem are discreetly cooperating), the regional reintegration of the Syrian regime, previously blacklisted for its bloody repression of the post-Arab Spring internal protest, and the restoration of the previously very strained ties between Turkey and other countries in the region.
The mediation of a China unaccustomed to playing a diplomatic role in the Middle East has all the more significance since the United States, although the usual sponsors of the majority of the arrangements in the region, maintains execrable relations with Iran. : the two countries have broken their formal relations since the hostage taking of American diplomats in Tehran in 1980 and the sanctions decided in 2018 have been increased over the years.
United States relations with Saudi Arabia, of which they were the main ally and guarantor of security since the so-called “Quincy” pact in 1945, have cooled markedly in recent years. In question, the assassination of a Saudi journalist from the “Washington Post”, probably on the orders of the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, Riyadh’s strategy aimed at driving up crude oil prices and its overly cordial relations with Moscow. Washington, which has shown for years its desire to engage less in the Middle East, however welcomed the agreement on Friday, while saying it doubted that Iran would fulfill its obligations.
Such a rapprochement is also of particular importance for the oil markets, since Riyadh is, by far, the world’s leading exporter of black gold, the market of which it can regulate thanks to its unused production capacities. Iran currently exports little oil, due to US sanctions, but would have the world’s third largest reserves of conventional oil excluding shale. The price of a barrel, however, reacted little to the announcement of the agreement, anticipated it is true for some time.