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What to expect after Iran, Saudi Arabia agree to restore ties

Tehran, Iran – Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to restore diplomatic ties in a China-brokered deal that could have far-reaching consequences, but building on that, analysts say, will prove to be the biggest challenge.

The agreement signed in Beijing on Friday says that the two countries’ foreign ministers will meet within two months to discuss diplomatic missions, marking the end of a seven-year rift.

In Iran, the deal was widely welcomed, with senior officials touting it as a step towards easing tensions and strengthening regional security. Conservative media mainly focused on how the deal represented a “defeat” for the United States and Israel.

Some of the same outlets had been celebrating in 2016, when Riyadh cut political ties with Tehran after its diplomatic missions came under attack.

The invasion of the missions by protesters came after the Sunni-majority kingdom executed a prominent Shiite Muslim leader.

At the time, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei had also denounced Saudi leaders.

But none of Iran’s officials or state-affiliated media are showing overt pessimism now as talks, which began in April 2021, finally paid off after efforts by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who visited Saudi Arabia in December and met Iranian President last month. Ebrahim Raisi received. .

Friday’s rapprochement was greeted with optimism by Iraq and Oman – who had previously helped broker the talks – and many others in the region, while cautiously welcomed by the US.

‘High suspicion’

According to Tehran-based political analyst Diako Hosseini, the agreement is a positive development, but only one of many.

“Saudi Arabia will probably still be cautious in economic relations with Iran because it does not want to be exposed to US sanctions. And normalization does not necessarily mean that the two sides trust each other,” Hosseini told Al Jazeera. “Either way, easing tensions in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq can still bring broad interests to both sides.”

Hosseini added that ending the eight-year war in Yemen, where Iran and Saudi Arabia support opposing sides, could be the most important final outcome of the agreement, but that it would be a difficult goal to achieve.

“The high level of mistrust and the intensity of geopolitical rivalries may make the trend of easing tensions reversible. To achieve success, both countries must embark on long-term sustained efforts and try reliable ways that ensure mutual interests,” he said.

According to Hosseini, China was the big winner of the agreement, as it strengthened the legitimacy of its outreach across the region.

In fact, not only did China become a guarantor of this agreement, it also showed that the US can no longer ignore China’s role in the security arrangements of the Arabian Gulf, a region where energy reserves and passageways are more important to the Chinese economy than the US,” he said.

‘Shifting violence’

Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, agrees Friday’s pact could serve to ease tensions rather than resolve deep-seated disagreements.

“Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have ebbed and flowed for decades, but their bottom has always been high,” he told Al Jazeera. A deal with Tehran could lead to a deal with the Iran-backed Houthis.

“Having said that, it is very important to understand that such an agreement, if reached soon, will unfortunately not lead to peace in Yemen,” he said, adding that the conflict between the Houthis and the Saudi-led Arabian-backed coalition would continue and secession demands in South Yemen would persist.

“A Houthi-Saudi deal would shift the violence, not stop it,” he said.

Juneau also said Iran can make small concessions to Yemen but will not agree to end its support for the Houthis as part of an agreement with Saudi Arabia.

“Iran’s support for the Houthis has enabled it to build significant influence in the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula. Iran will not give up this important tool in its portfolio.”

Meaning of past agreements

Iran and Saudi Arabia have had a checkered history in their less than a century of formal diplomatic relations, which have also seen many ups and downs since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

The kingdom supported Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran in the 1980s, but sought closer ties with Tehran after the end of the war.

Tehran and Riyadh grew closer during the tenure of reformist President Mohammad Khatami in Iran, signing a general cooperation agreement in 1998 and a security cooperation agreement in 2001.

Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s incumbent security chief who signed the agreement Friday, was defense minister at the time and was instrumental in efforts to bring the two countries together. He even received the Order of Abdulaziz Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the kingdom. , early 2000s.

The fact that the two agreements signed decades ago were directly referenced in the text of Friday’s agreement, with both sides pledging to implement them, is an important development, according to Sina Toossi, a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC.

China’s top diplomat Wang Yi, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, and Saudi Arabia’s minister of state and national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban (China Daily via Reuters)

“The mention of these past agreements can be seen as a nod to the positive relations that existed between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the late 1990s and early 2000s. By referring to this period of positive relations, the statement can be seen as an attempt to recapture this spirit of cooperation between the two countries,” he told Al Jazeera.

Toossi said the 1998 agreement covered a range of issues, including deeper security, economic and cultural cooperation, and laid the groundwork for the groundbreaking 2001 security agreement.

“This period in Iran-Saudi relations has been marked by the establishment of joint security institutions, increased trade, the issuance of business visas to each other’s citizens, and regular high-level diplomatic contacts.”

Mentioning these past agreements also highlights the potential for greater collaboration and dialogue, Toossi says.

“The two sides implicitly acknowledge that they agree on issues such as regional security and economic cooperation. These past agreements can serve as a starting point for future talks between the two countries on resolving their differences,” he said.

However, it remains to be seen how the two will handle some sensitive issues, including concerns about their military and nuclear programs, as well as internal affairs.