The groundbreaking March 2023 normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran could potentially reshape the political landscape of the Middle East. It has already paved the way for de-securitization and the resumption of diplomatic relations. Normalization has created positive sentiment on both sides, and a flurry of ideas have been proposed to expand bilateral ties.

However, critical security issues remain unresolved, casting doubt on the long-term sustainability of the process. These dilemmas raise questions such as whether non-security cooperation alone can ensure the durability of normalization in the face of persistent challenges in both sides’ security policies. What measures and mechanisms should be introduced to mitigate security tensions that may resurface again? It is worth noting that the normalization statement and diplomatic sources offer few answers to these pressing questions.

The current political opening provides a fragile and narrow window of opportunity to establish mechanisms that can address both sides’ security concerns. The focus in the short term should be on shaping new norms of conduct by stopping both sides from using their capabilities against the other rather than demands to disarm or make significant changes in military-security strategies. This requires building a new legal basis that can guarantee long-term mutual implementation of the agreement.

Capitalizing on this rare opportunity, Riyadh and Tehran should move forward to finalize a comprehensive non-aggression pact as the foundation for their future security relations, stopping any subversion or military aggression, and creating a de-escalatory mechanism in the event of a crisis.

Making sense of a non-aggression pact

A total of 137 non-aggression pacts have signed between former rivals across the globe. Not all of these were successful, but overall, they have contributed to stabilizing the early stages of normalization when mistrust is greatest. Such pacts facilitate the transition from rivalry to cooperation when parties are not ready to agree on politically costly and risky concessions, like disarmament or arms reduction. A non-aggression treaty prohibits the use of any measures of subversion and aggression, while allowing both sides to retain their deterrence models.

Subversion includes any act that incites, aggravates, or creates dissension within another state with the aim of destabilizing or overthrowing the regime. Any non-conventional measures, such as intelligence and clandestine operations, media, and disinformation campaigns, would be included in this definition — for example, intervention in a country’s internal affairs for ideological or security reasons, including under the umbrella of “protecting ethnic rights” or “ensuring freedom of religious rights.” This is critical as both Arab minorities in Iran and Shiite populations in Saudi Arabia have been subject to subversion in the past under similar pretexts.

Aggression, by contrast, involves the use of armed force or any military means by a state, a group of states, or a state-sponsored armed group against the sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity of another state. A ban should also cover the use of nonviolent military means and hybrid operations. The use of state-backed proxies, including any member of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” network, and clandestine operations as a means of operating below the threshold of armed conflict should be ceased as well. A non-aggression pact would not demand the revision of regional security assistance policies, but it would prohibit the use of these assets against the other side.

Such an approach, inclusive in its definition of aggression, would guarantee that every means and tool that might harm state security and national integrity would fall under the scope of the treaty. But at the same time, it would avoid limiting national defense strategies, thereby minimizing the political and security costs. Indeed, a non-aggression pact is not a defensive, offensive, or consultative alliance and does not require cooperation in the event of conflict. It is also not a disarmament treaty that seeks to reduce certain capabilities in the parties’ arsenals, either conventional or asymmetric.

The pact would only limit the use of military-security means to resolve disputes and gain political leverage. It would add a legal commitment to an existing political agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, making a return to the sort of hostile actions carried out by both states between 2016 and 2021 costly.

A non-aggression pact is a good starting point for normalization between rivals when mistrust is rampant, there are huge challenges to boosting ties, and the probability of future hostilities seems relatively high. It is a rather low-cost political choice to create a solid security foundation and signal to the world that normalization is not just a temporary agreement.

What makes a non-aggression pact important now?

There are several interlinked reasons why normalization is shaky and requires mechanisms to sustain it. A formal non-aggression pact is among the tools that helps to protect normalization from various external and internal spoilers. It suits the transition between rivalry and cooperation when both systemic and external factors may work to undermine the normalization.

First, a non-aggression pact can be a way to further strengthen the political-security dimension of normalization, which is likely to remain the major focus for now. Despite a flurry of ideas, there are few chances that Riyadh and Tehran could strengthen ties through non-security areas, such as trade, economic cooperation, and cultural exchange, in the short term. Under heavy U.S. sanctions, the Islamic Republic urgently needs economic cooperation and sees normalization with its neighbors as a way to escape its current economic crisis. Riyadh has other thoughts though and reports indicate that it has no intention of seeking “exemptions” from U.S. sanctions. For the kingdom, providing major economic concessions to Iran when no strategic shift in its nuclear and regional policies has occurred would cost it the leverage it has over Tehran. Thus, it is unlikely that non-security areas can serve as the basis to make normalization sustainable.

Second, a non-aggression pact is a solution to the lack of proper legal and institutional foundations for normalization. The legal status and implementation of the General Agreement for Cooperation signed in 1998 and the subsequent security cooperation agreement signed in 2001 that are referred to as the basis for the recent rapprochement are uncertain. Even if these previous agreements start to be fully implemented, the scope of neither agreement covers the sort of security problems the two states have experienced in recent decades. For example, the 2001 security agreement is limited in scope to cooperation on anti-terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, and social crimes. By contrast, it is the unprecedented militarization of relations and hard security threats that are at the core of recent tensions. Thus, it is not clear how the 2001 agreement can be a reliable foundation for a new round of normalization.

Third, a non-aggression pact would help to reduce the negative impacts of U.S.-Iran and U.S.-Israel tensions on Saudi-Iranian normalization. Saudi Arabia’s position in any hypothetical military escalation remains a critical point of contention. For years, Tehran, given Riyadh’s support to Saddam Hussein during his attack on Iran, believed that Saudi Arabia would assist a possible U.S. or Israeli military operation inside Iran. Thus, the question of how much access to critical assets Saudi Arabia will give to U.S. forces in a war remains central to Saudi-Iranian normalization. This comes at a time when the issue of access to regional partners’ critical assets is becoming increasingly important for Washington as Central Command’s (CENTCOM) dynamic force employment approach is being implemented. However, Saudi Arabia’s support for Washington, such as providing bases, overflight permission, and other forms of assistance in pressuring Iran, is likely to prompt retaliatory action from Tehran. The Islamic Republic may choose to inflict costs on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, if its strategic calculus in a changing security environment forces it to do so. Thus, delinking U.S.-Iran and Iran-Israeli tensions from Saudi-Iranian relations remains a grave challenge for Riyadh and Tehran — one with the potential to create new diplomatic and military tensions while also limiting economic ties.

Fourth, the pact provides an opportunity to reduce the formation of new threats when deterrence remains the core feature of both sides’ security strategies. Indeed, there are more continuities than changes in both countries’ security and military strategies. Both sides continue to believe that lasting peace in the region requires strong military capabilities. Iran perceives its nuclear threshold status and short break-out time as a means to extract political leverage and even boost deterrence. There is no debate in Tehran over reviewing its policy of supporting the Axis of Resistance because the network is viewed as a functional element of its military doctrine. Besides, Iran’s missile program is advancing at its normal pace. It is unlikely that any of Iran’s core military capabilities would be affected by normalization with Saudi Arabia simply because, from the Iranian perspective, they target the U.S. and Israel, not Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the kingdom is also building up its military capabilities at a similar pace as before. U.S.-Saudi military cooperation is moving forward, including building integrated air defense systems and drone programs. While Riyadh is looking at Beijing and Moscow to diversify its defense partners, recent U.S.-Saudi discussions over normalization with Israel revealed that the Saudis view stronger military cooperation with the U.S. as an important part of future deterrence. Riyadh’s bid to acquire long-range strike capabilities through missiles, drones, and new fighter jets has no other likely target in the region aside from Iran.

Implementing the pact

Proper implementation of a non-aggression pact requires continuous security consultation, exchange of information, direct communication between the two sides’ military-security sectors, and transparency about the challenging aspects of security policy. On Aug. 16, 2023, Aziz Nasirzadeh, the deputy chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, met Talal al-Otaibi, an aide to the Saudi defense minister, on the sidelines of the 11th Moscow Conference on International Security. As this meeting makes clear, holding direct military talks between two rivals is not a far-fetched idea. Establishing various military confidence-building measures is central to guaranteeing the implementation of the pact. These measures can shape new norms of interaction that gradually reduce mistrust between the two security establishments.

One major step in this process is pre-notification and exchange of information about each other’s motives and intentions for specific actions and military movements, particularly in the Persian Gulf and other contested areas. For example, Iran often justifies seizing foreign ships in retaliation for the U.S. seizure of Iranian assets. Military drills, offensive exercises, and missile tests are part of Tehran’s naval strategy to reinforce deterrence against the U.S., but Tehran ignores the threat signals such actions send across the Persian Gulf.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s participation in naval drills, especially with CENTCOM, such as those carried out in March 2023, causes similar irritation in Tehran. On Aug. 29, Riyadh took command of the U.S.-led coalition Combined Task Force 152 and the internationally-led Coalition Task Force Sentinel to protect maritime commerce in and around the Strait of Hormuz. For Tehran, such actions send signals about Riyadh’s true intentions.

Tehran-Riyadh direct engagement about such moves across the Gulf, in Yemen, and in other sensitive conflict zones can clarify intentions, avert miscalculation and unintended escalation, and provide reassurances to the other side. While it is unrealistic to expect either side to overhaul its military strategy, cease military preparation, or end international commitments, the two countries can mitigate threat perceptions and reduce the risks of aggressive response from the other side by establishing pre-notification and briefing mechanisms.

A non-aggression pact can also be the basis for a broader discussion about topics like defense strategies and doctrine. Iran should engage in a dialogue with Saudi Arabia about its nuclear intentions, support for Shiite groups, and missile strategy. Iran’s nuclear program remains a major threat for Saudi Arabia. Tehran is miscalculating if it envisions both a full-scale normalization and a prolonged nuclear escalation. Similarly, Saudi Arabia could also discuss the objectives behind its missile defense program, nuclear policy, and efforts to boost its stand-off capabilities.

At this point, for defense talks to succeed, they should not entail any formal commitment clauses or impose limitations on other side’s policies or military capabilities. Instead, they should aim for a more limited goal: to show goodwill and reduce misperceptions. If continued, these dialogues may eventually lead to a new understanding about the regional balance of offensive and defensive forces, the formation of new codes of conduct for missile tests and deployments, and other military confidence-building measures that reduce the long-term risk of aggression.

A non-aggression pact will act as a vehicle for Riyadh and Tehran to establish a joint military commission, helping to institutionalize military-to-military communication in a more routine way. Establishing such contacts will gradually feed into broader confidence-building measures, such as naval visits and joint trainings. In this way a pact could be a first step in overcoming long-lasting threat perceptions by establishing direct communication.


A non-aggression pact is a transition step to help rivals build more cooperative behavior gradually, especially when normalization efforts face multiple challenges, deep mistrust, and serious security concerns. Riyadh and Tehran can reinforce the military-security dimension of their political normalization by signing a non-aggression pact that would help reduce threat perceptions and shape new norms of conduct.

However, it is critical to remember that such a pact will not end the arms race if it is not followed by other complementary mechanisms. North and South Korea signed a pact in 1992 and the U.S. and Russia followed suit that same year. Neither pact ended the arms race or helped reach strategic parity as they failed to build a broader political consensus to end the underlying rivalry. Thus, while important, such pacts are only the first step in a long normalization process.

In the medium term, non-aggression pacts are a useful tool, functioning as a formal commitment that increases the credibility cost of noncompliance, making the resumption of hostilities more costly. They are also important in their signaling function and in building trust for third-party investors and traders. A successful non-aggression pact between Iran and Saudi Arabia can gradually take on a regional nature by promoting similar pacts between Tehran and Abu Dhabi or Manama, feeding into a broader regional reconciliation process.


Abdolrasool Divsallar is a political scientist working on the Middle East regional security system with a focus on Iran. He is a visiting professor of Middle Eastern studies at the Higher School of Economics and International Relations (AZERI) at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan and a non-resident scholar with MEI's Iran Program.

Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

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