Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi promised to improve relations with regional countries after his appointment. Following Iran’s recent rapprochement with Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, Iran signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic relations last week. The agreement was signed in Beijing, and it is seen as an indication of Iran’s attempt to improve relations with its neighbours without changing its foreign policy. This move will likely undermine the United States-led efforts to pressure and isolate Iran, and the easing of Iran’s regional isolation will be viewed as a success in Tehran.
However, the fact that Iran remains heavily sanctioned by the US and isolated from much of Europe due to its support for Russia in the war in Ukraine, implies that the agreement between Riyadh and Tehran is a step towards the right direction for US efforts to encourage a regional security framework as it pursues relative disengagement from the region. The agreement reportedly includes a commitment from Iran to stop encouraging Houthi rebels in Yemen to conduct cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia has received some guarantees from Iran.
Despite the agreement, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and other regional countries will continue to perceive Iran as a threat. The issue of Iran’s backing for armed groups in Arab states is unlikely to be immediately and seriously addressed in discussions, according to Caroline Rose, a senior analyst at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy. Riyadh continues to share many of the same concerns that the US has with Iran’s regional posture and nuclear programme.
Reducing the risk of regional wars
The restoration of diplomatic relations could help Saudi Arabia extricate itself from the war in Yemen, but it is unlikely to lead to a quick end to conflict in Yemen due to factors such as the Houthi’s agenda, which may involve a continued relationship with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Yemen’s problems also include actors such as the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), which is not influenced by Saudi Arabia or Iran.
In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have long considered the country to be under Iranian influence due to its support for Hezbollah. A better relationship between Riyadh and Tehran could have implications for Syria, where Saudi Arabia and Iran supported opposite sides in the country’s war. However, the agreement could create opportunities for the Syrian government, and it may be that the Saudis see an opportunity to get things done.
Nicholas Noe, the president of The Exchange Foundation, stated that Lebanon’s political dynamics and atmosphere for domestic deal-making “will probably improve” if there is real progress in Saudi-Iranian relations. However, the agreement might not be enough to bring about the kinds of deep structural reforms that are urgently needed to treat the country’s most immediate problem: continuing socioeconomic meltdown.
The restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a significant step, but it may not lead to a complete normalisation of ties. The agreement could reduce the risk of regional wars and help ease tensions between the two countries. However, it is unlikely to solve the underlying issues that have caused tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Syria: Implications for the war-torn nation
The potential implications of the Saudi-Iranian agreement extend beyond Yemen and Lebanon and could have significant consequences for Syria, where the two countries have backed opposing sides in the civil war.
While the war in Syria has officially ended, the country remains heavily divided, and the peace process is far from over. The conflict has caused immense suffering and displaced millions of people, and the international community has struggled to find a lasting solution.
Before the agreement, several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, had already started the process of reintegrating Syria into the region’s diplomatic fold. The UAE and Oman have been working to accelerate the rehabilitation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Following the Saudi-Iranian agreement, Saudi Arabia may now be more willing to formalize diplomatic relations with Damascus.
“Any improvement in Saudi-Iranian ties is likely to be good news for Assad. Saudi resistance remains a key obstacle to Syria’s regional integration, looking at, for example, Arab League membership,” said Aron Lund, a fellow at Century International.
The improved relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran could create new opportunities for the Assad regime, which has faced significant international isolation and economic sanctions. However, it remains to be seen how the agreement will affect the broader peace process in Syria and whether it will lead to any significant changes on the ground.
There are also concerns that the agreement may strengthen the position of Iran-backed militias in Syria, further complicating efforts to achieve lasting peace in the country. The presence of these militias has been a significant obstacle to efforts to stabilize Syria, and the international community has struggled to find ways to address this issue.
While the Saudi-Iranian agreement may offer some hope for Syria, the situation remains complex, and it is unclear how it will play out in the long term. The international community must continue to work towards a lasting peace in Syria and address the underlying issues that have fuelled the conflict.