What the Saudi-Iran Deal Means for the Middle East

Last week, Saudi Arabia and Iran announced that they would reëstablish diplomatic relations after seven years of severed ties. The two nations pledged to reopen their embassies and also agreed to begin coöperating in areas such as security and trade. The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran—which is often used as a symbol of the broader tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims—has been a key feature of politics and conflict in the Middle East. Both have been involved in proxy fights in Yemen, Lebanon, and elsewhere. (In Yemen, Saudi Arabia launched an intervention in the hope of restoring a government overthrown by Iranian allies; in Lebanon, the Saudi government forced the resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister, in 2017, a move thought to be aimed at containing Hezbollah, an Iranian ally.) Almost as significant as the agreement itself is that it was brokered by China, which has sought to expand its influence in the region.

To discuss what this deal could mean, I spoke by phone with Gregory Gause, an expert on the Middle East and a professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we talked about how Saudi Arabia’s leader, Mohammed bin Salman, may be rethinking his country’s foreign policy after a rocky few years with the West, whether conflict between Iran and Israel is on the horizon, and why the United States should be less paranoid about Chinese involvement in the Middle East.

Why did this deal happen now?

It’s a reflection of China’s increased importance in the Gulf and in the Middle East more generally. Iran is feeling somewhat isolated in the region, and I think it sees more pressure coming from the United States and Israel on the nuclear issue. I don’t think that that’s necessarily why Saudi Arabia was willing to agree to this now, but it could be why China stepped in—to try to prevent some escalation on the nuclear issue. But, even if the Saudi government is less apt to support an American-Israeli strike on Iran regarding the nuclear issue, that might not be enough to stop it.

What is in this for Saudi Arabia, then?

The country’s relationship with China. When I talk to Saudis, one of the things that they emphasize to me is, “Don’t make us choose between you and China. China buys more of our oil than any other country—we can’t get involved in the United States’ efforts to create an anti-China bloc. We want to work with you, but we can’t isolate China.” And so I think the importance of the relationship with China and the desire not to alienate China diplomatically probably had something to do with it. Of course, Saudi Arabia has been talking to Iran through Iraq for a year or more, so it’s not as if this comes completely out of the blue. The thing that comes completely out of the blue is China’s central role in the situation.

Recent reporting has indicated that Saudi Arabia wants the U.S. to help it build a civilian nuclear program, in exchange for normalizing relations with Israel. I imagine Israel will not be thrilled about this new deal with Iran, as the Israelis have been reaching out to other Sunni states for the ostensible purpose of containing Iran. Are these Saudi goals—to normalize relations with Iran and to normalize relations with Israel—in tension?

They are in tension, without a doubt, and I think that the extension, so to speak, of the Abraham Accords to Saudi Arabia was probably on the table in these talks. I assume that Iran sees that, if Saudi Arabia signed on to a deal with Israel, that would further deepen Iranian isolation in the region. So I think that these two things are in tension. But I don’t want to exaggerate what Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to here. I don’t think that this ended any of the ongoing issues in the Saudi-Iranian relationship. To me, the real sign of Saudi-Iranian rapprochement would be a settlement of the Yemen issue, not reopening embassies in each other’s countries. Iran is the only outside power that really has any influence over the Houthi movement. This issue is really important to Saudi Arabia, and it’s looking for an exit ramp.

I don’t think that this ends the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran on Yemen, on Iraq, on Syria, on Lebanon, or on the nuclear issue. Those are still out there. This is a really interesting and different initiative from China in terms of its diplomatic involvement in the Gulf, but, if they could actually get some movement on the nuclear issue, then Nobel Prizes all around.

M.B.S. has essentially been in power in Saudi Arabia for the past several years, and we saw, at least initially, a very aggressive Saudi foreign policy, with him presiding over a catastrophic war in Yemen, and also aggressive action in Lebanon—

In Qatar.

That’s right, the blockade of Qatar. So, are we seeing a change in Saudi foreign policy? You mentioned that they’ve been talking to Iran through Iraq for about a year, and that there’s some desire to try and end the conflict in Yemen. Again, I don’t want to understate what’s still going on there in terms of the humanitarian crisis, which Saudi Arabia is in large part responsible for. But I’m curious whether you think Saudi Arabia is trying to transition into a different stage.

There have been some changes. I don’t know M.B.S. personally, but I think he came into power believing that Saudi Arabia was a superpower—that it could act like Russia, like China, like Iran. It could kill its dissidents abroad; it could use military force with impunity and success; it could throw its weight around. M.B.S.’s predecessors, his father’s generation, were very cautious. They knew the limits of Saudi power, and I’m not sure that he recognized those limits, but I think maybe he’s learning those limits now. And so we are seeing, I think, a more cautious Saudi foreign policy. But it’s also a Saudi foreign policy that is predicated on the idea that the Pax Americana is over and we’re in a more multipolar world. For Saudi self-interest, relations with China and relations with Russia are important, because there’s not an exclusive, single superpower to deal with anymore.

People in the United States don’t appreciate how important the September, 2019, attack on the Saudi oil facilities was for Saudi Arabia. This was the first time that Iran attacked Saudi territory, with implausible deniability. Did it come from the Houthis? Did it come from Iraq? That the United States really did nothing in response was shocking to the Saudis, and I think some of the outreach to Iran started at that point, as M.B.S. came to realize that he might not get backup from the United States for an aggressive policy toward Iran. [Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attacks, conducted by drones, on Saudi oil processing plants in Abqaiq and Khurais; the United States and its European allies have accused Iran of helping the rebels.]

Are there other reasons that Saudi Arabia might want to reach out to Russia and China? Perhaps because they have systems of government that someone like M.B.S. is more sympathetic toward? It’s not so fun to get criticized by the Biden Administration about Jamal Khashoggi, or about women’s-rights activists being thrown in jail, or whatever else. In short, is this outreach ideological as well as practical?

I discount that because the United States remains his main security interlocutor in terms of arms sales, in terms of military training, in terms of intelligence sharing, all of those things. And I don’t think that the outreach to China and Russia is something that dates from Biden or even late Obama. The deal with Russia was through OPEC+. That was an effort by Saudi Arabia to include Russia and some other non-OPEC members, but above all Russia, in efforts to sustain prices in the world oil market. This occurred first in the mid-twenty-tens when, around 2015, you had a collapse of oil prices, which collapsed again in 2020, with COVID. Collaboration with Russia was seen by Saudi Arabia as essential for oil prices. Even with the war in Ukraine, the Saudi government has sustained the belief that it needs to have a relationship with Russia to do that.

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