Two weeks ago, on March 10, Iran said it would restore diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia after a seven-year rupture as part of a deal brokered by China. The agreement, reached in Beijing, is the result of almost a year and a half of mostly quiet talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, facilitated by a host of countries including China, Iraq, Oman, Russia, and the United States.
Tehran and Riyadh agreed to keep the contents of the lengthy agreement confidential. Although publicly billed as a bilateral agreement, the deal’s key points reportedly focus on ensuring regional stability in the Gulf and the Middle East more broadly. The deal aims to enable the two sides to have an open diplomatic dialogue, rather than engage in conflict to the detriment of the region.
The deal also reportedly entails mutual assurances that neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia will sabotage the other’s interests on a range of issues in the political, intelligence, security, and media spheres, so that confidence-building steps may follow. The agreement, however, will not halt Iran’s support for the so-called “Axis of Resistance,” a grouping of regional allies and proxies that Tehran uses to enhance its security. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has been touring the region in recent months, insisting on Iranian support for the axis.
One of the main reasons why the agreement was reached now, according to sources in Tehran, was Saudi Arabia’s recognition that it must get to the root cause of the problem it faces in Yemen, where Tehran backs the Houthi movement, by working with Iran and giving reconciliation a chance. The agreement’s public announcement stressed respect for the principles of state sovereignty and non-interference, which Amirabdollahian says is sufficient proof of Iranian intentions in Yemen moving forward.
A flurry of diplomacy
Months before the deal was signed, a flurry of diplomacy pointed to a gradual opening on the Iranian-Saudi front. On Dec. 7, 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to Saudi Arabia, where he held talks on Iran and forwarded an initiative that led to the meeting between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Beijing in March 2023.
Foreign Ministers Amirabdollahian and Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud then met during the Baghdad II Conference in Amman on Dec. 20, 2022. According to a hardline member of Iran’s parliament, Javad Karimi Ghodoosi, at meetings on the sidelines of the conference Iran received signals from the U.S. that it was keen to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which the U.S. pulled out of in 2018. Additionally, Tehran was reportedly led to believe that Washington did not view the Iranian opposition in exile as a serious alternative to the Islamic Republic, despite months of nationwide anti-government protests inside Iran. The Chinese initiative was discussed again when President Ebrahim Raisi traveled to Beijing in February 2023, signaling that there might have been a degree of coordination between Washington and Beijing in encouraging a thaw between Tehran and Riyadh.
Iran and Saudi Arabia each say that the other side asked for the talks that took place in Beijing. According to Riyadh, President Xi broached the subject of further talks on his trip to the kingdom in December 2022. Iran says Saudi Arabia requested Chinese assistance in resuming talks with Tehran, which Raisi was informed of when he went to Beijing.
In 2021-22, Iraq hosted five rounds of Tehran-Riyadh talks and asked that they be made public toward the end, perhaps to pave the way for Baghdad to offer further assistance to de-escalate U.S.-Iran tensions over the JCPOA. Iraq’s interest in encouraging a thaw between Washington and Tehran suggested that the issue was also linked to advances being made in Baghdad on the issue of the Tehran-Riyadh talks.
The fifth round of talks held in Baghdad in April 2022 was meant to lead to future meetings between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Iraq continued to offer its mediation services to both sides throughout the year. But after the last face-to-face discussions in April, at which point Iran expected to receive a Saudi response in writing to continue the negotiations, Riyadh backed off, despite the fact that the two sides had nearly reached an agreement, just as the JCPOA talks once again stalled.
Another reason why the talks were derailed was because of Iran’s focus on economic issues, mindful of the sanctions against it and the impact on its trade relations. This was despite the fact that its deputy secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Amir Saeid Jalil Iravani, was leading the talks with high-ranking officials from the Saudi intelligence service, including the director-general of the General Intelligence Directorate, Khalid bin Ali al-Humaidan. Saudi negotiators demanded that the talks concentrate on resolving major security files.
In June, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi arrived in Iran from Jeddah to advance the next round of talks, after which Iran backed a truce in Yemen around the same time that Washington and Tehran agreed to resume indirect JCPOA talks in Qatar through the European Union. Iran subsequently confirmed that it was ready to restore ties if Saudi Arabia would reciprocate. Amirabdollahian pushed for the reopening of embassies, but apathy on the Saudi side reportedly prevented further progress.
In July, Iran proceeded to hold bilateral talks with Egypt and Jordan, during which Cairo assured Tehran that it would not back any regional alliance against it, while Amman backed down from the idea of forming an Arab NATO, which it had previously supported. A month later, Iran took steps to appease the EU about its serious intent to revive the nuclear deal.
Nationwide protests in Iran in September delayed further talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia. According to the hardline newspaper Kayhan, a mouthpiece for Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Tehran’s ability to neutralize enemy hybrid warfare aimed at bringing about regime change during the protests and its refusal to give in to foreign pressure to abandon its nuclear program were instrumental in paving the way for a final agreement with Saudi Arabia once the protests subsided in December. In addition, the last round of Iranian-Saudi talks in Iraq had already reached a conclusion over issues linked to the protests in Iran, for which Tehran had blamed opposition television stations abroad that the Saudis allegedly funded.
Beijing steps in
To discuss the Chinese initiative that emerged in December 2022, Tehran proposed in February 2023 that the Iranian and Saudi deputy foreign ministers meet in Beijing. Riyadh called for higher-level talks between top security officials, in response to which Tehran dispatched the secretary of the National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, to China. Iranian and Saudi national security and intelligence chiefs then took part in week-long meetings. Shamkhani described the talks as positive, direct, and transparent. The resulting agreement focused on bilateral relations, but reportedly processes were put in place to discuss outstanding issues later on with the aim of building cooperation in the Middle East and the Muslim world.
The talks were balanced, according to sources in Iran. The resumption of diplomatic relations, these sources added, did not entail a change of strategy by either side or the weakening of either state. Instead, it meant bilateral exchanges would replace the usual long-standing conflict between Tehran and Riyadh.
Finally, regional files were not an immediate priority in the deal, but improving bilateral relations could lead to reduced tensions and increased stability. Amirabdollahian and Faisal bin Farhan will meet to discuss the resumption of diplomatic ties and lay out a framework to expand them.
Tehran confirmed that it has since received messages from Saudi Arabia through the Swiss government, and that Tehran and Riyadh held a total of five rounds of talks in Iraq and three rounds of security meetings in Muscat to reach the deal in Beijing.
Portrayal in the Iranian media
According to Kayhan, the Iranian-Saudi agreement was shaped by Qassem Soleimani, the Quds Force commander killed by U.S. forces on his way to negotiating a deal with the Saudis in Baghdad in January 2020. Soleimani reportedly went as far as proposing a 10-year non-escalation pact between Iran and Saudi Arabia in conflict zones in the Middle East. This meant that neither the United States nor the West played a major role in the talks, although they were informed negotiations were taking place and about a pending agreement on March 10.
Kayhan also calls the deal a profit- and loss-based agreement. As in any deal, sometimes the two sides may be more hostile, while other times they may be more friendly. It is about putting both together and figuring out how to live as neighbors. According to the newspaper, as long as the two sides uphold their commitments, the deal can last.
Iran hopes that it has built a durable agreement that, in time, leads to reconciliation with the Gulf Cooperation Council, promotes regional convergence, and helps reduce or end tensions in conflicts zones in the Middle East. As Iran sees it, if the deal proves successful, the West will have a hard time taking steps to undermine or derail the agreement, even if it wants to; this is not just because it did not play a major role in shaping the deal, but also because it might ultimately weaken U.S. influence over Saudi Arabia.
Banafsheh Keynoush is a scholar of international affairs, a non-resident scholar with MEI’s Iran Program, and a fellow at the International Institute for Iranian Studies.
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