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Saudi-Iran détente is fragile, but Middle East potential is huge | Middle East and North Africa

Iran’s foreign ministry quietly confirmed in April that Tehran’s embassy in Riyadh had reopened for the first time since 2016, the latest in a series of gestures signaling the two Middle Eastern powers’ determination to quell a rivalry that has tarnished the region’s image. 40 years.

There are signs, big and small, that the settlement is real: Civilian flights between the two countries will resume; an Iranian wins an $800,000 Saudi Quran reading contest; Iranian steel is entering the Saudi market; Officials from both countries hug after the navy rescued 60 Iranians trapped in Sudan; Ibrahim Raisi is expected to soon announce a visit to Riyadh, the first by an Iranian president since 2007.

On March 10, the reconciliation promoted by the oddest couple in the world between Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 37, and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 83, came to an end on March 10. China officially announced. After eight years of tension, the two sides have drawn up a two-month plan to normalize diplomatic and economic relations.

Relations between the two countries broke down in 2016 after protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran over the execution of a dissident Saudi Shia cleric. But in reality, since the Iranian revolution in 1979, two sides representing different cultures and the two wings of Islam have been locked in a proxy battle for control of the region.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/AFP/Getty Images

The question now is whether these winds of change will blow through the Middle East, triggering conflicts in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and even Israel, all of which are intensified and even sustained by Saudi rivalry with Iran.

A London-based diplomat advised caution. “This isn’t a love story. This is a mutually convenient time-out,” they said.

Cinzia Bianco, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the deal was real but fragile. “There are a few key points, like the possibility of a new Republican president in the United States, or an Israeli attack on Iran … Potential insurance policies are still being considered by both sides.”

One London-based Arab diplomat likened the process to the substructure upon which other countries can build, suggesting the impact on the region could ultimately be huge. A deal could confirm Washington’s decline in the Middle East, weaken Israel, return Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the Arab camp, provide Saudi Arabia with a new long-term carbon market in China and begin to end Iran’s Economic isolation, he said.

But even with China as a guarantor, the process will be slow, predicts Aham Kamel, head of Middle East research at the Eurasia Group. “You don’t go from competition to significant cooperation overnight. I suspect Iran-Gulf relations will move away from an era of confrontation and into a more natural era of disagreement, competition, and cooperation.”

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Photo: Zuma Press/Shutterstock

He described the détente as part of a broader adjustment in the Middle East. “Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries want a global partnership with the US as a key, but not just a pillar,” he said. “They still favor a closer relationship with Washington, but they are reluctant to sever ties with other major powers such as China.”

Riyadh has been insecure in its relationship with Washington for at least a decade. Once the United States ends its dependence on Saudi oil, the former’s role as the latter’s security provider is inevitably called into question, and their paths slowly diverge. Riyadh believes Barack Obama’s support for the Arab Spring was misguided and tried to block his efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015.

Under Donald Trump, Riyadh got the U.S. policy it had been advocating, including maximum pressure on Iran, only to find that the policy didn’t sit well with it. The fact that Iranian-made missiles temporarily shut down half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production in September 2019 is a shocking display of the kingdom’s exposure. It was even more shocking when Trump failed to defend Riyadh. Likewise, the United Arab Emirates was deeply offended by the indifference displayed by the West when four ships were attacked in the Gulf of Oman in May 2019.

With Joe Biden promising to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” during the 2019 US presidential election, it’s hard to suggest that Democrats will bail out.

Prince Mohammed therefore wants to keep himself out of the line of fire for fear that Saudi Arabia will be in Tehran’s bullseye should Israel attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. He wants to follow the UAE – the ultimate hedger – to a less risky place and focus on growing the Saudi economy.

“The Saudis no longer have the image of the ATMs of the world. They are no longer the cash cow of the world,” said Farea Al-Muslimi, a Middle East researcher at Chatham House.

Rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran may have exacerbated many pre-existing conflicts in the region, but it did not cause them — nor will settlement end them.

“All of these conflicts are self-defeating, but they also have a regional dimension that feeds domestic factors, which makes them more complex, more complex and bloodier,” Bianco said.

One potential opportunity for progress is in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, where Iran armed Houthi rebels fighting a Saudi-led coalition but now appears to support peace efforts.

A man hugs Houthi prisoners of war exchanged in April in a deal with the internationally recognized Yemeni government
A man hugs Houthi prisoners of war that were exchanged in April in a deal with the internationally recognized Yemeni government. Photo: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

“After nine years of civil war, the Houthi forces may also be exhausted. The Saudis know that the smallest Houthi rocket fired from Yemen may require an additional $500 million in insurance premiums,” Muslimi said.

But the rivalry between the Houthi movement, the internationally recognized government and separatist forces in the south stems from Yemen itself. “Iran’s control over the Houthis is not complete, so Iran is committed to doing what it can,” said Dina Esfandiary, a Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group.

In exchange for Iran’s help in Yemen, Saudi Arabia appears ready to normalize relations with Syria’s Assad. He has been considered a pariah for 12 years, but on Sunday his country rejoined the Arab League. Riyadh argues that normalization could strengthen Syrian institutions and offer the most realistic way to regain influence and control of cross-border drug networks.

But there are also obstacles. Qatar, Washington’s main partner in the Gulf, wants political concessions from Assad that he has not previously shown a willingness to do.

It is also unclear what normalization will mean for the large population in areas outside Syrian government control. Assad wants Turkey to leave northern Syria and stop funding militants in Idlib province, but Ankara is reluctant to leave without guarantees of Syrian Kurds on the border. The United States is determined to give the Kurds a share of Syria’s oil and gas resources on a federal basis in Iraq.

A third country that could benefit from ending the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is Lebanon. It has been without a president since Michel Aoun’s term ended last October. By law, the role must be filled by a Maronite Christian. Despite successive rounds of voting, Saudi and Iranian-backed factions have failed to agree on a replacement.

The powerful Hezbollah group backed by Iran and the Amal Movement led by Nabi Berry, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament, together form Lebanon’s Shiite stronghold, continue to support Assad’s close friend Suleiman Franger, but Saudi Arabia Refuse to support him.

All of this could portend disaster for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He believes the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords will normalize relations with Saudi Arabia, but Riyadh is normalizing relations with Israel’s enemies — Iran, Syria and even Hamas.

A senior Hamas official’s visit to Saudi Arabia for the first time since 2015, while Riyadh recently became a “dialogue partner” of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where Iran has observer status, only adds to Israel’s anxiety.

Netanyahu recently told CNBC: “Those who cooperate with Iran will suffer. Look at Lebanon, look at Yemen, look at Syria, look at Iraq. 95% of the problems in the Middle East stem from Iran.”

Saudi Arabia may have agreed with that assessment two years ago, but it appears to have decided that cooperation, not Israeli confrontation, is the way forward.

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