Analysis: Iran eases its regional isolation with Saudi deal

Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to restore diplomatic relations last week, but Tehran is likely to keep its foreign policy pillars.

Members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps attend an IRGC ground forces military drill in the Aras area, East Azerbaijan province
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has close ties with groups across the Middle East [File: IRGC/WANA/Handout via Reuters]

Since becoming Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi has promised to improve Tehran’s relations with its neighbours.

Last week’s agreement with Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic relations, signed in Beijing, is more real evidence of those attempts bearing fruit, after a recent warming of relations with Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

The fact that the easing of its regional isolation has come without Iran having to change any pillars of its foreign policy will be seen in Tehran as a success.

That it will undermine United States-led efforts to pressure and isolate Iran will likely be seen as an added bonus.

But while the country remains heavily sanctioned by the US, and isolated from much of Europe due to its support for Russia in the war in Ukraine, it could still be argued 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”, Caroline Rose, a senior analyst at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, told Al Jazeera.

Saudi Arabia has reportedly received some guarantees from Iran, such as a commitment to no longer encouraging the Houthi rebels in Yemen to conduct cross-border attacks against the kingdom.

And yet, Saudi Arabia, along with other regional countries such as the UAE and Bahrain, will continue to perceive Iran as a threat.

“It is difficult to envision Iran ending its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon or [Syrian President] Bashar [al-Assad] in Syria, and Iran will always seek a pliant Iraq,” said Gordon Gray, a former US ambassador to Tunisia.

Tehran’s backing for various armed groups in Arab states is unlikely to be “immediately and seriously addressed in immediate normalisation discussions”, said Rose. “Riyadh has by no means suddenly started to see ties with Iran through rose-coloured glasses and continues to share many of the same concerns the US does with Iran’s regional posture and nuclear programme.”

Changes in Yemen?

Some analysts are optimistic about the progress being made in Yemen in light of the Saudi-Iranian deal.

Yet, it should not be assumed that a Riyadh-Tehran détente will lead to a quick end to conflict in Yemen, with other factors important to consider.

Firstly, Tehran cannot singlehandedly push the Houthis towards conducting themselves in ways that will assuage Saudi security concerns.

“The restoration of diplomatic relations could help Saudi Arabia extricate itself from the war in Yemen, but the Houthis of course have their own agenda as well,” Gray said.

That may involve a continued relationship with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which operates independently of the government and answers directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. There is no guarantee that the IRGC and the Houthis will not cooperate in ways that leave Saudi Arabia feeling threatened.

Yemen’s problems also include many that are separate from the issues that exist between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia.

There are other actors, chiefly the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), which are not influenced much (if at all) by either Saudi Arabia or Iran.

As of now, it remains to be seen how the separatist STC will adjust its conduct, or not, in response to the Saudi-Iranian agreement.

Members of the STC, which has clashed with the Yemeni government in the past, have already said it will not be held to a deal between the Saudis and the Houthis on any matters pertaining to southern Yemen.

Reducing risk of regional wars

Lebanon is one of the regional countries where Saudi Arabia has long decried Iranian influence, much of which comes through its support for Hezbollah, regarded as the Arab world’s most powerful paramilitary force.

Saudi Arabia and some other GCC states have long considered Lebanon to be “lost” to Tehran with Hezbollah being the dominant actor on the ground.

Underscored by the GCC-Lebanon rift of 2021-22, the Riyadh-Tehran rivalry has affected the small Mediterranean country in ways which have harmed Lebanese citizens, particularly economically.

At this stage, it is difficult to predict how the Saudi-Iranian agreement will play out in Lebanon’s domestic landscape.

Yet, some are optimistic that there could be a change.

According to Rami Khouri, a co-director of Global Engagement at the American University of Beirut, Saudi or Iranian-backed actors in Lebanon’s political arena “would find it impossible to resist a clear desire, if not a command, from the Iranians and the Saudis to improve conditions and get on with the process that all Lebanese want, which is just to have a normal country instead of this wreck that they’re living with now”.

If Lebanon’s political environment could improve because of this regional détente, such a development could bode well for the battered Lebanese economy.

Khouri believes that there is a “50/50 chance” of that happening, and that if it does happen, it will “push a big regional economic boom of some sort, or at least fast growth”.

“That’ll help everybody, particularly the people in Lebanon. It will open up more export markets and many things that’ll help the Lebanese,” added Khouri.

Nicholas Noe, the president of The Exchange Foundation, added to that tone of optimism, and predicted that Lebanon’s political dynamics and atmosphere for domestic dealmaking “will probably improve” if there is real progress in Saudi-Iranian relations.

“The core problem, however, is that this marginal positive gain – even if it helps lubricate a compromise over the presidential vacuum, for example – will simply 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,” Noe said.

Better relations between Riyadh and Tehran could also come with major implications for Syria, where Saudi Arabia and Iran have supported opposite sides in the country’s war.

However, even before last week’s agreement between Riyadh and Tehran, a number of Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, had begun the process of reintegrating Syria into the region’s diplomatic fold, with the UAE and Oman working to accelerate al-Assad’s rehabilitation.

Following its agreement with Iran, Saudi Arabia might now be more agreeable to formalising its 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,” Aron Lund, a fellow at Century International, told Al Jazeera.

“[The Saudi-Iranian agreement] could nonetheless create opportunities for Assad’s government, and it may be that the Saudis see an opportunity to get things done on the Syria file, following Abu Dhabi’s lead,” Lund said. “Still, it’s important to realise that diplomatic normalisation of the Assad regime is also held up by Syria’s own broken state, by Assad’s toxic reputation, and by US resistance and sanctions. These are issues that would not be solved by a less hostile approach from Riyadh.”

Ultimately, the diplomatic agreement between Riyadh and Tehran will not immediately solve all the sources of tension in bilateral relations, let alone all the Middle East’s conflicts.

But it has much potential to make it easier for Saudi Arabia and Iran to address their problems in ways that can significantly reduce the chances of new regional wars erupting in upcoming years.

“Improved Saudi-Iranian relations mean that both sides will develop an interest in ensuring that tensions in these conflicts don’t get out of control, at a minimum,” said Trita Parsi, the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “[And there will be] an interest in actively resolving them, at a maximum.”

Source: Al Jazeera