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The Media Line: Iran-Saudi Rapprochement Resonates Across, Beyond Middle East

Iran-Saudi Rapprochement Resonates Across, Beyond Middle East

The agreement to restore Saudi-Iran diplomatic ties is a sign that US clout is declining in the region, and a slap in the face for Israel’s effort to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia

By Mohammad Al-Kassim/The Media Line

Saudi Arabia and Iran announced on Friday that, after seven years of cut ties, the two countries would restore diplomatic relations and reopen embassies and missions within two months, as well as revive security and economic cooperation agreements signed more than 20 years ago.

Riyadh severed its relations with Tehran after Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions in the Islamic Republic in 2016 following the Saudi execution of revered Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

The surprise China-brokered deal will resonate across and beyond the Middle East, says Nicholas A. Heras of the New Lines Institute.

“Both see the United States shifting attention and resources to Europe and Asia and are seeking to build balanced and positive relationships with China because the perception in the region is that China, Russia and the United States will all be present and influential in the region over the next decades,” Heras told The Media Line.

He says the deal will have an impact ranging from Yemen’s civil war to Lebanon to Iraq to Syria.

“Saudi Arabia and Iran each see an opportunity to advance certain discrete objectives: for Riyadh to freeze Iranian attempts to undermine Saudi sovereignty and to pressure the Houthis to come to a deal, and for Tehran to gain Saudi acquiescence to the Iranian presence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen,” according to Heras.

Following years of hostility, many were surprised and caught off guard, blindsided by the Iran-Saudi agreement signed last week in the Chinese capital, Beijing.

Alex Grinberg, a former Israeli military intelligence officer and an expert on Iran at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told The Media Line that, despite the fanfare that accompanied the announcement, he is not surprised by the agreement.

“I can’t say I’m surprised because frankly everything is logical here, because the Saudis see that the US is withdrawn from the Middle East, but it’s not,” he said.

“There’s no normalization between Saudi Arabia and Iran, they hate each other,” according to Grinberg, but added that each has specific goals that they’d want to achieve, and the agreement will hasten that.

Grinberg says the Saudis are acting on the principle of “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

“The core issue is that Iran still denying its support for the Houthis, there’s no sign that the war in Yemen is coming to an end, and it all depends on what happens next,” according to Grinberg.

Resumption of diplomatic ties between the two regional heavyweights symbolizes yet another sign of what many in the Middle East say is a failure of foreign policy by the US administration.

Some view China’s involvement as a sign of faltering US importance.

“China is the sponsor of the most important agreement in the Middle East for a long time between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and America is watching from afar,” Hasan Awwad, a US-based Middle East affairs expert, told The Media Line.

Grinberg thinks talk of a Chinese takeover in the region is “overly exaggerated” and that China has no intention of competing with the US in the Middle East, because China’s interests are not political, and only economic.

Awwad explains that the relationship between Tehran and Riyadh is complicated, and the agreement reached on Friday is one step in a long journey of trust-building measures between the regional powers.

He says the Saudi crown prince is trying to “assert” himself as a major player in the region.

“Mohammed bin Salman shocked everyone with this, he believes he can be a leader in the region,” according to Awwad.

The agreement also could reverberate to other conflicts in the region. “Major changes await the situation in Yemen, Lebanon and Syria,” Awwad added, referring to Iran’s relations with its proxies in countries in the region, including Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

“There are many regional issues that need to be resolved between [Iran and Saudi Arabia] in order for this agreement to be called a success, and for an actual thaw to icy ties to take place,” he said.

Nevertheless, Awwad says that China was able to achieve what others have failed to do in the last few years.

“China’s credibility is on the rise, and this will only feed the notion that US hegemony in the region is on the decline,” he said.

“There’s no doubt that the region is witnessing political, economic and social transformation, and all these factors played a role in pushing these two countries to set aside their differences and animosity toward each other and attempt at opening a new page,” he also said.

For a long time, Saudi Arabia has demonized Iran, and visa versa, but the war in Ukraine and regional conflicts may have helped push the two sides to put an end to their estrangement.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu criticized the deal brokered by China. Netanyahu has long championed a tough stance on Iran and its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs.

He repeatedly hinted that normalization with Saudi Arabia was within reach.

Awwad says the deal is “a clear diplomatic victory for Iran” and “a slap in the face” to Netanyahu.

Israel’s Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said it represents “a total and dangerous foreign policy failure of the Israeli government.”

The agreement makes it clear that the reestablishment of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia is not a given.

“Saudi Arabia, which is being heavily courted by Israel, just sent a big signal to the current Israeli government that the Israelis cannot count on Riyadh to support Israeli military action against Iran, anywhere in the region,” Heras said.

Heras didn’t shoot down all talks toward normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia; however, he says the path to reestablishing diplomatic relations is full of challenges.

This week, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times both reported that the desert kingdom would agree to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for help in building a civilian nuclear program.

But surging Israeli-Palestinian violence this year has made any steps in that direction unlikely in the short term.


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