TEHRAN/ RIYADH: Since becoming Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi has promised to improve Tehran’s relations with its neighbors.
Last week’s agreement with Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic relations, signed in Beijing, is more real evidence of those attempts bearing fruit, after a recent warming of relations with Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
The fact that the easing of its regional isolation has come without Iran having to change any pillars of its foreign policy will be seen in Tehran as a success.
That it will undermine United States-led efforts to pressure and isolate Iran will likely be seen as an added bonus but while the country remains heavily sanctioned by the US, and isolated from much of Europe due to its support for Russia in the war in Ukraine, it could still be argued that the agreement between Riyadh and Tehran is a “step towards the right direction for US efforts to encourage a regional security framework as it pursues relative disengagement from the region”, Caroline Rose, a senior analyst at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, told Al Jazeera.
Saudi Arabia has reportedly received some guarantees from Iran, such as a commitment to no longer encouraging the Houthi rebels in Yemen to conduct cross-border attacks against the kingdom and yet, Saudi Arabia, along with other regional countries such as the UAE and Bahrain, will continue to perceive Iran as a threat.
“It is difficult to envision Iran ending its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon or [Syrian President] Bashar (al-Assad) in Syria, and Iran will always seek a pliant Iraq,” said Gordon Gray, a former US ambassador to Tunisia.
Tehran’s backing for various armed groups in Arab states is unlikely to be “immediately and seriously addressed in immediate normalization discussions”, said Rose. “Riyadh has by no means suddenly started to see ties with Iran through rose-colored glasses and continues to share many of the same concerns the US does with Iran’s regional posture and nuclear program.”
Changes in Yemen?
Some analysts are optimistic about the progress being made in Yemen in light of the Saudi-Iranian deal.
Yet, it should not be assumed that a Riyadh-Tehran détente will lead to a quick end to conflict in Yemen, with other factors important to consider.
Firstly, Tehran cannot singlehandedly push the Houthis towards conducting themselves in ways that will assuage Saudi security concerns.
“The restoration of diplomatic relations could help Saudi Arabia extricate itself from the war in Yemen, but the Houthis of course have their own agenda as well,” Gray said.
Reducing risk of regional wars
Lebanon is one of the regional countries where Saudi Arabia has long decried Iranian influence, much of which comes through its support for Hezbollah, regarded as the Arab world’s most powerful paramilitary force.
Saudi Arabia and some other GCC states have long considered Lebanon to be “lost” to Tehran with Hezbollah being the dominant actor on the ground.
Underscored by the GCC-Lebanon rift of 2021-22, the Riyadh-Tehran rivalry has affected the small Mediterranean country in ways which have harmed Lebanese citizens, particularly economically.
According to Rami Khouri, a co-director of Global Engagement at the American University of Beirut, Saudi or Iranian-backed actors in Lebanon’s political arena “would find it impossible to resist a clear desire, if not a command, from the Iranians and the Saudis to improve conditions and get on with the process that all Lebanese want, which is just to have a normal country instead of this wreck that they’re living with now”. (Int’l News Desk)