The big loser of the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia
While this event is welcomed by many observers and countries in the region, some remain skeptical about the ability of the two countries to overcome their historic differences and work together to resolve regional conflicts.
The renewal of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia has given rise to numerous comments and speculation on the future of this diplomatic upheaval in the media.
Let's get back to the facts first. Riyadh and Tehran, two regional powers in conflict for decades, agreed on March 10 in Beijing to renew their diplomatic relations, broken for seven years.
The surprise deal is signed by the head of the Iranian regime's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, and Saudi National Security Advisor, Mosaed bin Mohammed Al-Aiban.
First consequence: Iran and Saudi Arabia announced their intention to restore their diplomatic relations, following a meeting between the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs and his Saudi counterpart in Beijing on April 6, 2023, in the presence of of Chinese Minister Qin Gang.
This agreement will allow the reopening of the embassies and consulates of the two countries, as well as the official resumption of bilateral relations. A Saudi diplomatic delegation visited Tehran to discuss the reopening of the kingdom's diplomatic representation in Iran by mid-May. Ebrahim Raisi, the president of the Iranian regime should also visit Riyadh after Ramadan to celebrate this formal rapprochement.
However, restoring relations is not enough in itself to "normalize" relations, dissipate tensions or reduce rivalries that have lasted for several decades.
While this event is welcomed by many observers and countries in the region, some remain skeptical about the ability of the two countries to overcome their historic differences and work together to resolve regional conflicts. Indeed, the two countries support opposing camps in several conflicts, notably in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria...
Moreover, these relations have been stained with blood on several occasions since the advent of the Islamic republic in Tehran.
Here is an overview of the most recent important dates in the evolution of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia:
1980-1988: The Iran-Iraq war. Saudi Arabia supports Iraq against Iran.
1987: Incident in Mecca, in which hundreds of pilgrims are killed in clashes with Saudi security forces. It turned out that the incident was provoked by agitating elements infiltrated by the Iranian regime in the ranks of the pilgrims.
1990-1991: Iran benefits from the fallout from the United States' intervention against Iraq, which had invaded Kuwait.
1996: The explosion of a booby-trapped tanker in a Saudi housing estate in the city of Khobar, in the east of the country, kills 19 people and injures nearly 500, many of whom are seriously injured. Saudi authorities accuse Iran of being behind the attack through Hezbollah Al-Hejaz, a branch of the Lebanese Hezbollah, a paramilitary organization affiliated with Tehran.
2011-2012: Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia and Iran are vying to expand their influence in transition countries. In Syria bloodied and devastated by a horrific civil war since 2011, Tehran and Riyadh support opposing belligerent forces to this day.
2015: Saudi Arabia intervenes militarily in Yemen to counter the growing influence of Iran, which has created a militia made up of Houthis, rebels hostile to the Saudi-backed government.
2016: Saudi Arabia cuts diplomatic ties with Iran after its embassy in Tehran was attacked by angry demonstrators protesting Riyadh's execution of a Saudi Shiite religious leader.
2019: Missile and drone attack on Saudi oil facilities, attributed to Iran by Saudi Arabia and the United States.
It is important to note that these dates are only a general overview of the often turbulent and tense relationship between the two countries over the decades, and that there have been many other significant events and incidents that have helped shape their increasingly tumultuous relationships.
The details of the Beijing agreement are not yet known, which makes it difficult to know more or less completely the implications of this rapprochement. This is perhaps why most observers have instead focused on a consequence external to the two countries. These commentators generally point out that the Beijing agreement has weakened the role of the United States in the Persian Gulf region, and sometimes even consider it as the end of American hegemony. Iran, which signed a 25-year cooperation agreement with China in 2021, sees it as a victory over the United States. General Rahim-Safavi, former head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and one of the close aides of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, presents the Beijing agreement as a turning point marking the end of hegemony American in the region.
However, even if this agreement considerably strengthens the regional role of China, it does not in any way mean that the Americans in the region are out of play. The Saudis still value their privileged relations with the United States, but if they have moved closer to China, it is to serve as a guarantor power that is sufficiently influential to control the mullahs' Iran.
The main terms of the agreement
Despite extensive discussions, Riyadh and Tehran "failed to resolve all outstanding disagreements between them", said Faisal Bin Farhan, the Saudi Foreign Minister.
So apart from the restoration of diplomatic relations broken by the Saudis, what are the important terms of this agreement? According to leaks and indiscretions that appeared in the press, these would be commitments to "not interfere in (the other's) affairs", reactivate "a security agreement signed in 2001" and "launch economic cooperation, commercial, technological and investment projects". According to experts, the eventual trade exchanges are far from being able to save the Iranian economy in ruins because of the economic sanctions linked to the Iranian nuclear program, mismanagement, corruption that has become endemic and social conflicts that have lasted for several years.
The reciprocal commitment to non-interference in the internal affairs of the two countries is reflected in two clauses:
Tehran undertakes not to use the Houthis in Yemen and the Shiite small groups in Iraq to target the territory of Saudi Arabia with drones or any other operational means.
The Saudis undertake to cease media propaganda against the Iranian regime in the grip of popular uprisings which endanger, by their magnitude, the very survival of the regime.
Of the two protagonists, it is Riyadh which gains the most according to diplomats. The war in Yemen and attacks from there constantly threatened the security of Saudi cities and installations. According to the Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat, the future of Yemen would be the test criterion for the success of the agreement and the seriousness of the Iranian side. For starters, the Houthis and loyalists exchanged prisoners last week.
Tehran has also reportedly pledged to stop supplying weapons to the Houthis. The paradox is that Tehran has always denied supplying arms to the Ansarrollah militia created and trained by the Revolutionary Guards for two decades with the help of Lebanese Hezbollah.
Everything indicates that the Saudis are taking advantage of Chinese backing to moderate the positions of the Iranian regime, which has largely depended on Beijing since the signing of a 25-year bilateral cooperation agreement.
But the Saudis have especially benefited from the weakening of the Iranian regime in the grip of a dispute which has shaken the country for seven months after the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Iranian Kurd arrested by the morality police for a question of compulsory veil in Iran . Since this tragedy, protest demonstrations have erupted all over the country. The brutal repression of this unprecedented movement has killed at least 750 protesters and tens of thousands of Iranians have been arrested by the forces of repression. The uprising in Iran is therefore the basis of this renewal between the two countries, an agreement however fragile which remains rather tactical than strategic. The Iranian regime has already demonstrated in the past that once the crisis is over, its regional interference resumes like an incurable addiction. The most skeptical in the chancelleries recall the famous Persian fable of the frog and the scorpion crossing a river together. The scorpion will eventually sting the frog with its poisonous sting in the middle of the river. To why of the frog, the scorpion replied: "I couldn't help it, it's in my nature". The nature and survival of the Iranian regime is based on the famous "export of the revolution" enshrined in the constitution of the mollarchy. Warmongering interference in the region and the will to survive in a space dominated by crises are essential lifelines that should prevent the mullahs' dictatorship from sinking. Ali Khamenei had clearly said that if he put an end to these military interferences in the Middle East region, he should "fight in Iran, in Kermanshah, Hamedan, Isfahan, Tehran or Khorassan…" against the young insurgents.
The Iranian regime wins in the second part of the agreement. Sunni Arabia undertakes to no longer finance the media and pseudo-Iranian opponents in exile who blow on the embers of the revolt in Iran. In fact the real issue is the Saudi-funded Persian-language television channel "Iran International" run by exiled Iranian journalists who have often worked in Iran's official media. This channel, based for a long time in London and which has recently transferred its premises to Washington, has been serving since September as a kind of propaganda machine turned towards the interior of Iran, suggesting in particular a possible return of the monarchy in this country. The star of this media operation is none other than Reza Pahlavi, the son of the former dictator monarch who was deposed in 1979 following a major popular revolt. Thus a nebula of opponents made up of nostalgics for the dictatorial past and disappointed elements of the current regime took turns on the sets of the Saudi channel broadcasting programs in the Persian language 24 hours a day. Thus, silencing this channel could appear as a success for the regime in Tehran.
One of the first manifestations of this rapprochement was the appointment by Saudi Arabia of a new Minister of Information (in charge of the media). This appointment suggested that Saudi Arabia could change the content of its satellite television channel.
This Saudi concession is not a great sacrifice since Saudi Arabia obviously prefers a weakened Iran with whom it could bargain but above all not an overthrow of the regime in power in Tehran.
According to observers of the uprising in Iran, the role played by Iran International Channel has been counterproductive. The illusion of a return to monarchical dictatorship in the event of the fall of the regime helped to stifle the fire of the uprising.
It can be concluded that the main loser of this agreement could be a fragment of the Iranian opposition, which has been supported by Saudi Arabia so far. An opposition which, like Ahmad Chalabi in Iraq, relies solely on foreign aid without benefiting from a real base inside Iran. This is perhaps what explains the recent trip of Reza Pahlavi, son of the last shah, to Israel in search of new resources. The problem is that during the seven months of uprising in Iran not only has there been no sign of support from the Iranian population for a return to the old dictatorship, but on the contrary the main slogan heard throughout the country are "Down with the oppressor, be it the Shah or the Supreme Guide", or "Neither monarchy nor "mollarchy, democracy and freedom".
The Iranian resistance rooted in Iran, which has never counted on the support of foreign powers to overthrow the regime like the People's Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI), has nothing to fear from this agreement having never depended on Saudi Arabia or any other power in the region or beyond. Moreover, during the last seven months, the Iran International channel censored the multitude of information coming from resistance units in Iran linked to the PMOI, the real spearhead of the uprising.
Be that as it may, the process of rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran is still fragile and we will have to wait to see if it materializes in practice. It is therefore important to remain vigilant and to observe future developments with… caution.