For Iran, Saudi Détente Could Ease Strains Regionally and at Home

For years, Iran’s position as a power in the Middle East has been battered on several fronts.

Some Arab neighbors have forged ties with Israel, giving it a foothold in the Persian Gulf. Regional states have closed off the financial channels that once allowed Tehran to evade US-led sanctions over its nuclear and weapons programs.

Iran has also been engaged in a bitter battle for regional dominance with Saudi Arabia, with whom it broke relations seven years ago, engaging in a proxy war in Yemen and vying for influence in Lebanon and Syria.

Last week, Iran took a step to resolve some of those issues with a deal to restore ties with Saudi Arabia, its arch-rival in the region and an influential power among the region’s Sunni Arab countries with which Tehran has been at loggerheads. .

In a deal brokered by China, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to reopen embassies in each other’s countries; revive an old security pact; not attack each other, not even through proxy; tone down the rhetoric against one another in the media and elsewhere; and not meddle in the domestic affairs of others.

“We are moving from a lose-lose strategy to a win-win situation,” said Ali Akbar Behmanesh, a political analyst in Tehran close to the government. “We realized that to solve many of our problems we had to make peace with the Big Brother of the Arab world, and that is Saudi Arabia. The seven years of hostilities did not benefit our interests at all.”

The rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran occurred in 2016 when a vigilante mob ransacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran following the Saudi execution of a Shiite cleric. Iran is predominantly Shia, while Saudi Arabia is mainly Sunni.

If detente holds, analysts say, it could be transformative for the region, ending the proxy battle in Yemen and facilitating political resolutions in Lebanon and Syria. The United Nations said on Wednesday the deal had created momentum to renew peace talks on Yemen.

For Iran’s government, the gains would be significant at a time when its legitimacy has been questioned internally with protests that broke out six months ago after a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, died in custody after being accused of violating the country hijab. laws, and as she faces increasing isolation in the West as a result of her crackdown on dissent.

At the same time, negotiations between Iran and world powers to revive a nuclear deal that collapsed in 2018 when President Donald J. Trump withdrew the United States from the deal have stalled with little prospect of revival.

Without a deal, sanctions on Iran’s oil revenues and banking activity will remain, contributing to the continued deterioration of the Iranian economy. The United States and Europe have also sought to isolate Iran for supplying Russia with drones used in the Ukraine war.

Therefore, Iran needs all the friends—or, at least, not enemies—it can get.

Saudi Arabia is a powerful regional player, considered a leader of the Sunni faith due to its custody of Islam’s holy sites and has close ties to the West. Iran also signaled broader diplomatic outreach with other Sunni Arab countries in the region in the immediate aftermath of the deal, saying that normalizing relations with Bahrain is next on the agenda and that even Egypt could also be on the table.

“Fortunately, we are seeing positive vibes in the region,” Nasser Kanaani, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said last week. “These positive developments could also occur with other countries in the region, such as Bahrain.”

“We need to trust more in diplomacy and take steps in that direction,” he said.

Mr. Kanaani said that the region would benefit from further cooperation and good relations between Egypt and Iran. Diplomatic relations between those two countries were severed after Egypt provided refuge to the Shah of Iran after the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Earlier this month, when a delegation from Iran’s parliament traveled to Bahrain, a small island in the Persian Gulf that has been a flashpoint between Iran and Saudi Arabia, to attend a meeting of lawmakers, Iranian media reported that they had held talks. clandestine over forging diplomatic relations. Bahrain does not have an embassy in Iran.

And on Thursday, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, a powerful official who brokered the deal with Saudi Arabia in China, arrived in the United Arab Emirates with a delegation of top financial and security officials, including the Governor of the Central Bank. .

The choice of Mr. Shamkhani, who is ethnically Arab and speaks Arabic, as the envoy for diplomacy with Arab countries indicates that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, heads the Supreme National Security Council.

One of the objectives of the rapprochement may be to curb the growing influence in the region of Israel, which in 2020 reached a historic agreement with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, known as the Abraham Accords, mediated by the United States under the Trump presidency.

The growing presence of Israel, which has engaged in a campaign of assassination and sabotage of sensitive sites in Iran so close to its borders, has unnerved Iranian authorities, and Tehran has threatened retaliation if Israel uses the region as a platform. intelligence release. meetings or covert attacks against Iran. Israel, for its part, has long viewed Iran and its nuclear program as an existential threat, viewing Saudi Arabia as a potential partner.

Shamkhani said the Saudi-Iran deal would counter Israel’s “nefarious activities” in the Persian Gulf. But beyond Israel, Shamkhani’s negotiations will also focus on financial channels and trade with the Emirates. Iran’s state media reported on Friday that he will travel to Iraq to sign a security pact.

The Emirates has served as a major financial center for Iran, with a large population of expatriate Iranians owning business and commercial companies. Iran has long used the Emirates to evade sanctions, but the confrontation with Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the Emirates, plus pressure from the United States, restricted those channels.

Restricting Saudi-owned or affiliated media outlets has been another thorny priority for Iran. At the center of the negotiations with the media was Iran International, a Saudi-owned, Washington-based Persian news channelaccording to two Iranians familiar with the talks.

The Saudis say the canal is owned by private investors and not the government.

The news channel did not respond to requests for comment.

Iran views reconciliation with Saudi Arabia as a victory and a key part of a strategy to cool down domestically and internationally, analysts have said.

It is “a great regional victory for Tehran, as this vindicates the idea that ‘maximum pressure’ has failed,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a research group based in Tehran. in London, referring to Mr Trump’s campaign to force Iran to end its nuclear program and regional meddling.

Rather than wait for the West to punish Iran into submission, Arab states appear to have embraced the compromise, Vakil said, adding: “It is better to dialogue and encourage Tehran rather than live on the precipice of uncertainty and missile attacks.

viviana nereim contributed reporting.