Potential for a lasting Saudi-Iranian rapprochement in a changing Middle East
By Aimen Jameel
November 27, 2023
For many years, the long-standing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has heavily influenced Middle Eastern geopolitics. These two heavyweights in the region have frequently been charged with inflaming sectarian tensions while Riyadh and Tehran have often taken opposing sides in a number of crises. But on March 10 the two sides melted the ice after seven years and signed a Chinese-brokered deal to renormalize diplomatic relations, which were severed in early 2016. However, recent events in the region, most notably the Israeli war on Gaza following Hamas’ Operation al-Aqsa Flood on October 7, have raised questions about the future of Saudi-Iranian relations.
The Saudi-Iranian détente has potential to change the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape. Yet, some analysts have doubts about the sustainability of Saudi-Iranian renormalization. Israel’s continuous resistance to it is a relevant factor.
The détente between Riyadh and Tehran unsettles Israel for various reasons. Tel Aviv worries about increased Iranian influence in the region as a result of Tehran becoming less isolated. On top of renormalizing diplomatic relations with Riyadh, Iran’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the BRICS bloc, which will strengthen the Islamic Republic’s relationship with Russia and China, concern Israel, which sees pressure lessening on Islamic Republic as a danger. Additionally, Israel perceives Saudi Arabia now as less inclined to back Israeli objectives vis-à-vis Tehran.
An already unstable regional environment is made more complex by certain occurrences that persist in Saudi Arabia’s concerns about regional security even after ties have returned to normal. Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) said in a Fox News interview that if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, Riyadh must obtain one too for security reasons. This clearly shows Saudi Arabia’s continued suspicions about Iran and its intentions.
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, described Israel’s siege on Gaza and arial bombardment of the enclave as genocidal, demanding an immediate halt to Isarel’s military operations and calling for Israeli officials to be put on trial. He warned of potential retaliation if the attacks persist, referencing the so-called “axis of resistance”, which includes Iran-backed groups like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis—both already engaged in the confrontation against Israel while other groups supported by Tehran are also involved in low-level confrontation. The Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Ali Fadavi, hinted at ongoing actions by these groups. As tensions rise, there is speculation about broader involvement, possibly from Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi prioritized supporting Palestinians but noted the autonomy of armed groups.
MbS hosted many leaders of countries from around the Islamic world in Riyadh on November 11 to discuss the ongoing conflict. Where the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco rejected the draft proposal for an oil ban and banning the use of US military bases in the region for arming Israel, whereas Iran supported that draft. Amid ongoing tensions in the Middle East, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has accused Saudi Arabia of betraying the Palestinian cause by pursuing normalization with Israel. While Saudi Arabia officially maintains that it will only normalize with Tel Aviv if and when Israel agrees to the two-state solution in accordance with international law and the Arab Peace Initiative, its pragmatic approach to the conflict has raised concerns about its true commitment to the Palestinian cause.
Riyadh and Tehran maintain a complicated rivalry. Although there have been positive steps taken, including direct communication between MbS and Raisi on the sidelines of the summit in Riyadh, re-opening of embassies, and the meetings between the foreign minister of two sides, there are still deep-seated concerns and tensions that could strain bilateral ties. These include Iran’s backing of regional organizations such as Hezbollah, Israel’s resistance to the détente, and Saudi Arabia’s concerns about Iran’s missile, drone, and nuclear activities.
The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas has also highlighted the potential for regional involvement, with Iran threatening retaliation and Saudi Arabia’s interest-based approach to the conflict raising questions about Riyadh’s stance on the Palestinian cause.
The prospects for a long-term rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran remain to be seen. Much will depend on the ability of both countries to address their fundamental differences and navigate the Middle East’s complex dynamics amid a period of crises and heightened turmoil throughout the region.