Saudi-Iran Rapprochement: A contrarian view

The resumption of Saudi-Iran diplomatic relations is important – but it is not a watershed moment in Gulf security

April 26, 2023 - 3 minute read

—Remarks do not reflect the view of any US government agency—

The hot topic in Middle East security policy has been the Beijing-hosted agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to resume diplomatic relations. Much has been made of the accord and the forum, with many commentators hailing it as a realignment of the region, signalling both a shift in Saudi security policy as well as a replacement of the US’s security role in the region.  Claims made in traditional as well as social media make the agreement sound like the modern equivalent of the Fashoda Incident and a fundamental re-ordering of the regional order. Some have viewed every development in the Gulf since – positive or negative – as a function of it. But while the resumption of diplomatic relations is important, it is not particularly significant.

Here’s a few baseline issues to look at to support this contrarian view:

1. What does establishing diplomatic relations really mean? At its most basic level, the accord marks nothing more than an agreement to re-establish diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Relations were broken off in 2016 when the Saudi Embassy in Tehran was sacked by a mob. This is a return to the pre-2016 standards of diplomatic interaction. Does anyone think relations between the Kingdom and the Islamic Republic were friendly and cooperative before then?

2. What does China’s hosting the agreement mean? Probably less than it seems. There has been commentary about China as the rising power in the Gulf, about China supplanting the US, and about the Saudis now viewing China as the ultimate guarantor of their survival. This is overblown. There are a few basic facts to keep in mind. First, the talks between the two sides have been going on for some time with both the Iraqis and the Omanis as intermediaries. China came to the game somewhat late. Second, an intermediary must be trusted by both sides: there are very few major countries in the world that Iran would trust to represent its interests, and China – the biggest consumer of Iranian oil – is its top choice. There does seem to be a resentment of the Biden administration among the senior Saudi leadership and a desire to remind the US that the Kingdom has options, but this is more a tweaking of the terms of the relationship than a fundamental realignment.

3. How will this affect the war in Yemen? Less than expected. There has already been a year-long ceasefire in the Yemen war; both the UN and the US have had special envoys in intense discussion with all sides, and Oman has been hosting a number of Yemen talks, as well as prisoner exchanges. The resumption in diplomatic relations certainly doesn’t hurt efforts to bring the Yemen war to an end, but the developments so far are not beyond what we’ve seen in the past – this is likely to be an incremental improvement in relations rather than a revolutionary change.

4. Does this mean the US is withdrawing from the region? The narrative that the US is withdrawing from the Middle East has been a staple since roughly 2010. Any decrease in troops, any hint that a Gulf state is going to purchase military equipment from any other country, is taken as further evidence of American disinterest, withdrawal and declining influence.  This narrative misinterprets the reasons for the historically aberrant high numbers of US troops in the Gulf in the 2000s – many US troops were there not to defend the Gulf against Iran but rather to support military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.  When those operations ceased, US troop levels reverted towards their historical norm, which is much smaller than in, say, 2007 but much bigger than in 1989. The Chinese hosting the Iran-Saudi rapprochement is certainly a good thing for the Chinese, but that does not make it a defeat for the US. No one in the US expects that Iran will ever view their government as a suitable mediator – this is simply a field upon which we don’t expect to ever play.

So, is this deal a good thing?  On the whole, it is.

Traditionally, there are two causes to wars.  The first, the World War Two model, occurs when a determined state pushes for concessions until this erupts in war. The second, the World War One model, occurs when a dispute erupts between a small coalition state and an outside power that drags major powers into a much larger war. In the Gulf – given both the loose nature of the anti-Iran coalition as well as the lack of coordination among various Gulf states – there is a strong possibility of the latter case.

Wars have arisen from miscalculation and misinterpretation.  When states have embassies and regular communications, the probability of such bad outcomes decreases.  Regular communications between Saudi Arabia and Iran are not a bad thing; indeed, they should be enhanced.

Finally, from a US perspective, the Chinese role here is a step towards China having “skin in the game” in the Gulf. In the past, the Chinese have mostly been able to play a spoiler role in the overall Gulf security architecture. By brokering a reconciliation between Iran and the Saudis, they have staked some of their prestige and reputation on the preservation of these relations. They now have an incentive to keep relations on track, and thus may play a more positive role in many areas, possibly including moderating Iran’s more aggressive actions.

To those who view every action in the Gulf as a zero-sum game between the US and either Iran or China, the entente between Iran and the Kingdom represents a setback to the US. But this is overstating the case. The resumption of relations is a positive step, and all involved in it – including the Iraqis and Omanis – deserve credit.

The Chinese deserve a significant share of that credit. But this is simply a reversion to 2016.  This is not a watershed moment in Gulf security.


David Des Roches

Associate, Azure Strategy, and Associate Professor, Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington DC