The announcement by Iran and Saudi Arabia that they are re-establishing diplomatic ties could lead to a major realignment in the Middle East. It also represents a geopolitical challenge for the United States and a victory for China, which brokered the talks between the two longstanding rivals.
Under the agreement announced on Friday, Iran and Saudi Arabia will patch up a seven-year split by reviving a security cooperation pact, reopening embassies in each other’s countries within two months, and resuming trade, investment and cultural accords. But the rivalry between the two Persian Gulf nations is so deeply rooted in disagreements about religion and politics that simple diplomatic engagement may not be able to overcome them.
Here is a look at some of the key questions surrounding the deal.
Why is this important?
The new diplomatic engagement could scramble geopolitics in the Middle East and beyond by bringing together Saudi Arabia, a close partner of the United States, with Iran, a longtime foe that Washington and its allies consider a security threat and a source of global instability.
In the years since, Saudi Arabia has encouraged a harsh response from the West toward Iran’s nuclear program and even established diplomatic back channels to Israel, the strongest anti-Iran force in the Middle East, partly aimed at coordinating ways to confront the threat from Tehran.
How the breakthrough announced on Friday would affect Saudi Arabia’s participation in Israeli and American efforts to counter Iran was not immediately clear. But the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two regional powers marked at least a partial thaw in a cold war that has long shaped the Middle East.
What could the impact be across the Middle East?
Since they broke off diplomatic relations in 2016, the leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia have regularly denounced each other. Tehran has accused the Saudis of backing terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, and Saudi Arabia has blasted Iran’s support for a network of armed militias across the Middle East.
In 2017, relations were so poor that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia called Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “the new Hitler of the Middle East,” in an interview with the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. The next year, Prince Mohammed went even further in an interview with The Atlantic, saying that Ayatollah Khamenei “makes Hitler look good” because the Iranian leader wanted to conquer the world, not just Europe.
The enmity has been more than mere words, with the Saudi-Iranian rivalry underpinning conflicts across the Middle East, in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
It has played out perhaps most catastrophically in Yemen, where Saudi bombs aimed at reversing gains by Iranian-backed rebels have killed large numbers of civilians. Those rebels have responded by firing increasingly sophisticated missiles and armed drones at Saudi cities and oil facilities.
While the breakthrough announced on Friday took many observers by surprise, Saudi and Iranian intelligence chiefs have been meeting in Iraq in recent years to discuss regional security. A more formal diplomatic engagement may provide avenues for the two regional powers to make further progress on cooling regional flash points.
What was China’s role?
Iran and Saudi Arabia announced the agreement after talks this week that were hosted by China. Beijing maintains ties with both Middle Eastern countries, and the breakthrough highlights its growing political and economic clout in the region, which has long been shaped by the influence of the United States. Xi Jinping, China’s leader, visited Riyadh, the Saudi capital, in December, a state visit that was celebrated by Saudi officials, who often complain that their American allies are pulling away.
“China wants stability in the region since they get more than 40 percent of their energy from the Gulf, and tension between the two threatens their interests,” said Jonathan Fulton, a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council in Washington. And regional leaders in the past have noted their appreciation that China, which maintains a policy of “noninterference” in other countries’ affairs, avoids criticizing their domestic politics and does not have a history of sending its military to topple unfriendly dictators.
The announcement also reflects China’s desire to play a bigger diplomatic role on the world stage. Beijing has presented what it calls a “Global Security Initiative” and, last month, introduced a peace plan for Ukraine. Both the security initiative and the Ukraine proposal have been panned in the West for lacking concrete ideas and for ultimately promoting Chinese interests.
China’s most senior foreign policy official, Wang Yi, said on Friday that the Iranian-Saudi agreement was “major positive news for the world which is currently so turbulent and restive.” And in what could be read as a dig at the United States’ involvement in the region, he said in a statement issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry: “China supports the countries of the Middle East in adhering to strategic autonomy and enhancing unity and cooperation, casting off external interference and truly putting the future of the Middle East in its own hands.”
What could it mean for the United States?
News of the deal, and particularly Beijing’s role in brokering it, alarmed foreign policy hawks in Washington.
“Renewed Iran-Saudi ties as a result of Chinese mediation is a lose-lose-lose for American interests,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank that supports tough policies toward both Iran and China. He said it showed that Saudi Arabia lacks trust in Washington, that Iran could peel away U.S. allies to ease its isolation and that China “is becoming the major-domo of Middle Eastern power politics.”
But if the agreement reduces tensions in the region, that could ultimately be good for a Biden administration that has its hands full with the Ukraine war and a sharpening superpower rivalry with China. Trita Parsi, an executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, a Washington group that supports U.S. restraint overseas, said, “While many in Washington will view China’s emerging role as a mediator in the Middle East as a threat, the reality is that a more stable Middle East where the Iranians and Saudis aren’t at each other’s throats also benefits the United States.”
The White House rejected the idea that China was filling a void left by the United States in the Middle East. “We support any effort there to de-escalate tensions in the region,” said John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council. But he questioned Iran’s commitment to a true rapprochement with a longtime adversary.
“It really does remain to be seen whether the Iranians are going to honor their side of the deal,” Mr. Kirby said. “This is not a regime that typically honors its word. So we hope that they do.”
What are the obstacles to a true thaw in relations?
Saudi Arabia and Iran are global leaders of the two largest sects of Islam, with Saudi Arabia considering itself the guardian of Sunnis and Iran assuming a similar role for Shiites.
Leaders in Tehran routinely criticize Saudi Arabia’s close ties with the United States, accusing the kingdom of doing the West’s bidding in the Middle East. And Iran, in an effort to enhance its own security and project influence, has heavily invested in building a network of armed militias across the region. Saudi Arabia considers that network a threat not only to its own security but also to the broader regional order.
Other areas of stark disagreement include the role of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq and Lebanon; the future of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, whom Iran has helped remain in power; and the future of the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, whom Iran has supported and Saudi Arabia considers a top national security threat.
Reporting was contributed by Vivian Nereim, David Pierson, Christopher Buckley, Michael Crowley and Zolan Kanno-Youngs.