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Iran-Saudi Relations: Ambiguity Persists Despite Diplomatic Renewal

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan arrived in Iran on June 17 amid a rapprochement between the countries. Tehran and Riyadh agreed to reopen their embassies within two months as part of a China-brokered deal signed in Beijing on March 10. The kingdom broke ties with Iran in 2016 after protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the mission in Mashhad in retaliation for Riyadh's execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.

Iran officially Iran reopened its embassy in Riyadh on June 6, followed by its consulate general in Jeddah and its mission to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) a day later. Unconfirmed reports suggest that a Saudi delegation has been Iran'sin a luxury hotel in Tehran for several weeks to facilitate the official reopening of embassy buildings.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hussein Amir-Abdollahian welcomed has met with his Saudi counterpart. During a joint press conference, the two diplomats hailed the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, which they said would be paramount to improving regional security. The two last met in early June in South Africa on the sidelines of a meeting of BRICS, the economic bloc of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

The Iranian foreign minister added that he discussed a wide range of bilateral and regional issues with his counterpart, which included trade ties and joint investments, in addition to accommodating Saudi tourists and (Shiite) pilgrims who may be interested in visiting Iran, Palestine, and the war in Sudan.

Prince Faisal "referred to the importance of cooperation between the two countries on regional security, especially the security of maritime navigation... and the importance of cooperation among all regional countries to ensure that it is free of weapons of mass destruction". The prince emphasized that “mutual respect, non-interference in the two countries’ internal affairs and commitment to the United Nations Charter will be at the center of bilateral relations going forward, with an eye on securing the interests of both nations.”

The Saudi minister is due to meet with Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi, who has just finished a tour of Latin America. Bin Farhan said the Saudi king and crown prince look forward to Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi “accepting the invitation to visit the Kingdom soon.”

Before the joint press conference, an incident occurred that the Iranians are attempting to downplay. The press conference was initially scheduled in a prepared hall where all the journalists were gathered. However, they were relocated to a different hall at a certain point, where the press conference eventually took place.

The underlying cause of this incident was the Saudi Foreign Minister's objection to holding the event with an image of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guardsal-Quds Force who was eliminated (January 2020) by the Trump administration, displayed on the wall behind him. Soleimani was the mastermind of subversive activities that undermined the security of Saudi Arabia. He incited and recruited the Shia population to take action against the kingdom.

The Iranians eventually conceded to the Saudi demand despite their initial resistance. The press conference was moved to a hall devoid of images of Iranian martyrs, including those of the Iranian leader Khamenei and the revolutionary figure Khomeini.

This event generated a significant response on social media, with Saudi netizens mocked, portraying it as an Iranian surrender and humiliation. The Iranians, on their part, sought to salvage the situation by sending the spokesperson of the Iranian Foreign Ministry to explain that the change of venue was due to a "technical issue." It is worth emphasizing that Iran experienced a significant blow to its pride in this incident, given that the Iranian regime, particularly Khamenei, who had a close relationship with Soleimani, reveres him as a saint, with his pictures and statues scattered throughout Iran, particularly in various government offices. Ultimately, The Iranians were forced to swallow a bitter pill in this regard.

The Saudi foreign mission to Tehran comes a week after United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Riyadh for high-level talks. Shortly after, it was confirmed that Iraq had been able to repay a considerable $2.7 billion of its debts to Iran incurred from importing natural gas. A portion of these funds was allocated to cover the expenses of Iranian pilgrims participating in the Hajj in Saudi Arabia. Additionally, it has been reported that 80 million euros ($87 million) were sent to the Iranian mission at the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah.

The diplomatic incident during the press conference, as well as the remarks made by the Saudi Foreign Minister regarding the safety of shipping and the prevention of subversive activities, shed light on the deep-rooted problem that continues to exist in the relations between the two countries, despite the outward appearance of diplomatic improvement.

Although the recent decision to restore diplomatic relations, Iran and Saudi Arabia remain strategic adversaries, the renewal of ties between the two countries is seen as a tactical move from the perspectives of Riyadh and Tehran. It is in Iran's interest to diplomatically ensure its national security in the near to medium term by repairing relations with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is signaling to the US that it is not satisfied with its weakness towards Iran's aggressive moves in the region, mainly attacks against vessels in the Persian Gulf and Houthi attacks against the kingdom. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia still sees the US and Israel as strategic partners for long-term strategic vision and is already looking forward to the upcoming US elections in 2024, hoping that a new administration will be more willing to take a tougher stance against Iran.

The deep-rooted Sunni-Shiite divide within the Muslim world is unlikely to be reconciled. The root of the conflict is a religious rivalry that has its roots in the early days of Islam and thus transcends time and space. The tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran will likely remain for the foreseeable future and temporarily subside as the region changes its sandy landscape.

Until recently, and quite possibly even with reduced visibility, the two states are waging a "cold war" through their proxies along the length and breadth of the Middle East, competing to shape a region in disarray since the Arab Spring. This struggle is being fought mainly in Yemen (Saudi Arabia's backyard), Bahrain (Iran supports the Shiite majority, which opposes the Sunni government; Saudi Arabia was already forced to intervene to protect Bahrain's ruler), Lebanon, and Iraq.

Iran will keep trying to exert its influence in Syria and Lebanon via Hizballah, as well as in Iraq, Yemen, Persian Gulf States, and everywhere in the Arab world and beyond where there is a Shiite Muslim population open to Iranian "assistance." Despite the recent rapprochement, Iran will push its advantage over Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arab world through its advanced nuclear program and improving geostrategic posture.

In doing so, Iran will be rectifying the historical injustice – going back to the inception of Islam – of the contemptuous and arrogant treatment of Shiites by Sunnis. It will also present a suitable Shiite Islamic alternative for the Middle Eastern struggle against the West and "its creation," Israel, in the very heart of the Muslim world after the repeated failures of Arab nationalism.

Suppose Iran completes its nuclear program and arrives at the first "Shiite bomb.". In that case, Saudi Arabia, along with other Arab states, will be forced to settle for an American (despite the Saudis' and Gulf states' recent doubts about American commitment) or Pakistani ("the first Sunni Islamic bomb") nuclear umbrella, and may also have to launch their nuclear program and thus open a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race.

Surprising turn of events, Prince Faisal bin Farhan abruptly left the press conference, leaving the Iranians in a state of shock. A portrait of Qassem Soleimani adorned the wall, seemingly smiling down upon the scene.


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