The latest agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, mediated by China, has shocked and perplexed the international community. This peace agreement is significant because it represents a departure from the traditional alliances and rivalries that have dominated diplomacy for centuries. China, which is now displacing the United States as the new major actor, mediated this agreement. The Americans, who have played a major role in the Middle East for the past 75 years, are currently watching from the sidelines while China is actively playing diplomacy on the ground. And the Israelis, who have been courting the Saudis to gain an advantage over their shared enemies in Tehran, are now unsure of its future.

The sudden Saudi-Iran détente mediated by China after two years long backdoor diplomatic efforts yet no details have been made public raised the question about the reliability of this historic deal.

It is noteworthy that Iran and Saudi Arabia started a sporadic dialogue in 2021, with Iraq’s mediation. Oman was also participating in facilitating diplomacy but after five rounds of negotiations held in Iraq between April 2021 and April 2022, Tehran and Riyadh were unable to come to a consensus. The Sunnis of Riyadh and the Shiites of Tehran might not have put aside all of their profound and vehement disagreements as a result of this peace agreement. Given that it was put on a cautious two-month timetable to iron out details, it is possible that this new agreement to exchange ambassadors may not even be fully implemented in the end. Since the past has demonstrated that the relationship between these two countries has been unstable, it is still unclear whether this peace agreement will be long-lasting.

It is observed that Iran is committed to ironing out the differences and materializing the deal but Saudi Arabia is still hesitant to reopen its embassy in Tehran. Iran reopened its embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on June 6, 2023. According to reports, Iran has appointed Alireza Enayati, a former representative to Kuwait (2014–2019) and director of Gulf affairs at the foreign ministry, as its ambassador to Saudi Arabia. During a ceremony, Alireza Bikdeli, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for consular affairs, said: “The region will move Inshallah [God willing] towards greater cooperation and convergence to achieve stability, prosperity, and progress.” Saudi Arabia still had not appointed an ambassador or announced when its embassy in Iran would reopen. It shows a clear indication that Riyadh is not yet willing to completely materialize the deal without engaging the United States as the biggest security guarantor.

The Kingdom’s choice in these shifting security calculations is to either defuse tensions with Iran or to strengthen the current security assurances it receives from the US by utilizing great power competition to its interest and diversifying its security fulfillment. Riyadh appears to have adopted a multifaceted approach. On the one hand, there is diplomatic engagement with Iran to deter threats through diplomacy. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia aims to take advantage of multilateral diplomacy to add a new security guarantor having more leverage over Tehran which is China in this case.

It is crucial to highlight that these changing dynamics in the Gulf do not reflect an effort from Riyadh to replace the United States; rather, they aim to engage China in the areas where U.S. policy has appeared to be ineffective.

Beyond the complexities between Riyadh and Tehran, there are several internal and external spoilers that might derail reconciliation between the two nations. On the internal level, conservative voices in both nations have profited to some extent from the other being demonized. While voices suspicious of Iran may still influence Saudi policy and sow doubts about the value of the deal, the difficulty is even greater on the Iranian side. Major initiatives in Iran’s foreign policy have shown to be susceptible to intra-Factional conflict. Although the conservative forces now in power in Tehran appear to embrace the agreement as a whole, it is not improbable that some groups may benefit from tensions with Saudi Arabia once more as they compete for votes in the coming presidential election.

There are also a lot of other factors that might ruin the rapprochement. The deal has impacted Israel and drawn scathing condemnation from the prime minister’s office as well as opposition leader Yair Lapid, who dubbed it “a total and dangerous foreign policy failure of the Israeli government.” Israel suffered a setback to its strategic objective of uniting with Arab states under the shared Iranian threat. Israel could be persuaded that the so-called “Iranian threat” is no longer a point of strategic convergence with Arab governments; therefore, it might also try to sabotage Arab-Iranian reconciliation to relieve some of the pressure from the region. For instance, after the agreement was reached, Israel escalated its airstrikes in Syria, which killed members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, raising tensions and endangering the deal if Iran chose to retaliate.

Even though the deal did not satisfy Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s security concerns, it has provided an opportunity that, at least shortly, has made it possible to change the security structure in the Gulf region in a way that benefits the whole Middle East.

Middle Eastern countries are experiencing a historic shift, providing opportunities to forge new connections, defuse tensions, and create an ecosystem for regional integration. Yet the ongoing tensions in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and other conflict zones, the recent outbreak of civil war in Sudan, and the general difficulties posed by tense relations between Iran, Israel, and several Gulf state all contribute to the region’s continued unease. Therefore, it is still too early to determine the long-term effects of the still-fragile Iranian-Saudi reconciliation.

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