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Analysis: Iran eases its regional isolation with Saudi deal


Since becoming president of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi has pledged to improve Tehran’s relations with its neighbors.

Last week’s agreement with Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic ties, signed in Beijing, is more real evidence that those efforts are paying off, following a recent warming in relations with Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

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

That it will undermine US-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 can still be argued that the Riyadh-Tehran deal is a “step in the right direction for US efforts to encourage a regional security framework as it seeks relative withdrawal 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 assurances from Iran, such as a commitment to stop encouraging Yemen’s Houthi rebels to carry out cross-border attacks on the kingdom.

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

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

Tehran’s support for various armed groups in Arab states is unlikely to be “immediately and seriously addressed in immediate normalization talks,” Rose said. “Riyadh has certainly not suddenly begun to view its ties with Iran through rose-colored glasses and continues to share many of the same concerns as the US with Iran’s regional attitude and nuclear program.”

Changes in Yemen?

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

Still, it should not be assumed that a détente between Riyadh and Tehran will lead to a quick end to the conflict in Yemen, with other factors being important to consider.

First, Tehran alone cannot induce the Houthis to behave in a way that allays Saudi security concerns.

“Restoring diplomatic relations could help Saudi Arabia free itself from the war in Yemen, but of course the Houthis also have their own agenda,” said Gray.

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

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

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

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

Members of the STC, which has clashed with the Yemeni government in the past, have already said they will not abide by any deal between the Saudis and the Houthis on matters pertaining to South Yemen.

Reducing the risk of regional wars

Lebanon is one of the regional countries where Saudi Arabia has long denounced Iranian influence, thanks in large part to its support for Hezbollah, considered the most powerful paramilitary force in the world.

Saudi Arabia and some other GCC states have long viewed Lebanon as “lost” to Tehran, with Hezbollah the dominant player on the ground.

Underscored by the 2021-2022 gap between the GCC and Lebanon, the rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran has affected the small Mediterranean country in ways that have hurt Lebanese citizens, particularly economically.

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

Still, some are optimistic that a change may be coming.

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

If the political climate in Lebanon could improve thanks to this regional détente, such a development could bode well for the battered Lebanese economy.

Khouri believes there is a “50/50 chance” of that happening, and that if it does, it will “produce a major regional economic boom, or at least rapid growth.”

‘Everyone helps with that, especially the people in Lebanon. It will open more export markets and many things that will help the Lebanese,” Khouri added.

Nicholas Noe, the president of The Exchange Foundation, added to that tone of optimism, predicting that Lebanon’s political dynamics and atmosphere for domestic deals are “likely to improve” if real progress is made in relations between Saudi and Arabia and Iran.

“The core problem, however, is that this marginal positive gain — even if it helps to smear a compromise on the presidential vacuum, for example — will simply not be enough to deliver the kind of deep structural reforms that are urgently needed to deliver the most The country’s immediate problem: ongoing socio-economic collapse,” Noe said.

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

But even before last week’s deal 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 the rehabilitation of al-Assad.

After the deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia would now be more inclined to formalize its diplomatic relations with Damascus.

“Any improvement in Saudi-Iranian ties is probably good news for Assad. Saudi resistance remains a major obstacle to Syria’s regional integration, for example when looking at membership in the Arab League,” Aron Lund, a fellow at Century International, told Al Jazeera.

“(The Saudi-Iranian agreement) could nevertheless create opportunities for the Assad government, and it may be that the Saudis see an opportunity to get things done on the Syria dossier, following Abu Dhabi’s lead,” Lund said. “Yet it is important to realize that the diplomatic normalization of the Assad regime is also held back by Syria’s fractured state, by Assad’s venomous reputation, and by US resistance and sanctions. These are problems that would not be solved by a less hostile approach from Riyadh.”

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

But it has a lot of potential to make it easier for Saudi Arabia and Iran to deal with their problems in a way that could significantly reduce the likelihood of new regional wars breaking out in years to come.

“Improved Saudi-Iranian relations mean that both sides will develop an interest in ensuring that tensions in these conflicts do not spiral out of control,” said Trita Parsi, the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “(And there will be) an interest in resolving them maximally actively.”


Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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