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Saudi Arabia and Iran: A Rapprochement or a Mere Tactical Move?

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said Iran would reopen its diplomatic missions in Saudi Arabia several months after Tehran and Riyadh agreed to re-establish relations under a Chinese-brokered deal.

Saudi Arabia broke ties with Iran in 2016 after protesters held angry rallies outside Saudi diplomatic posts in Tehran and the northeastern city of Mashhad during demonstrations triggered by the execution of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, one of the top Shiite religious leaders in the kingdom and the one who led the Shiite protest during the Arab Spring together with 46 others (four of them Shiites) who were charged with involvement in terror.

Saudi Arabia had already severed diplomatic relations with Iran in 1988 following accusations of Iran engaging in subversive activities within the kingdom and the Persian Gulf states (referred to as the "Arab Gulf" by the Gulf States). A significant incident contributing to the tension occurred in July 1987 when Saudi security forces clashed with Iranian pilgrims during the "disavowal of infidels" ceremony during the Hajj pilgrimage. This incident resulted in the loss of lives, both pilgrims and Saudi security personnel. In retaliation, Iran carried out a series of attacks on Saudi diplomats abroad to avenge the death of the Iranian pilgrims. Saudi Arabia later restored diplomatic relations with Iran following the conclusion of the 1991 Gulf War.

Nasser Kanaani stated, "To implement the agreement ..., Iran's embassy in Riyadh, our Consulate General in Jeddah, and our office to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation will be officially reopened on June 6th and 7th". Kanaani added that Iran's Embassy in Riyadh and its consulate general in Jeddah had already begun operating to help Iranian pilgrims heading to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj. Tehran named Alireza Enayati as its ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He had previously served as assistant to the foreign minister and director general of Persian Gulf affairs at the foreign ministry.

Iranian Navy Commander Shahram Irani said ( June 3rd) Iran formed new regional and extra-regional alliances to enhance security. "A joint alliance with naval forces of Iran and regional countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Iraq, will be set up soon," Irani added that Iran and Oman had previously held several joint naval drills. Still, other countries are now eager for collective maritime cooperation, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Iraq, Pakistan, and India.

According to "Kayhan, the Leader's mouthpiece, the "new emerging regional alliance is coming into shape a year after the Israeli regime announced that it, together with the United States and their regional Arab allies, would establish what they called a 'Middle East NATO' to counter the influence of Iran in the region."

Despite the recent decision to renew diplomatic relations, Iran and Saudi Arabia remain strategic rivals. The renewal of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a tactical step from Riyadh's and Thera's points of view. It serves Iran's interest to diplomatically secure its national security in the short-medium term by mending fences with the kingdom. Saudi Arabia is signaling to the US that it is not satisfied with its weakness towards Iran's aggressive moves against it – especially repeated Tehran-backed Houthi rockets and drone attacks on its territory - and against vessels in the Persian Gulf. 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. These changes are political, demographic, and geostrategic, mainly the Abraham Accords and the possibility of Riyadh joining in; the United States reluctance to take a more active role that regional players have interpreted as a sign that the US is looking to withdraw from the region and the increased Chinese, Russian and Iranian involvement.

Until recently, and quite possibly even now 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, Bahrain, and everywhere in the Arab world and beyond where there is a Shiite Muslim population or a 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; more simply, Iran will keep working for the first "Shiite bomb."

In doing so, Iran will be rectifying the historical injustice – going back to the inception of Islam – of 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.

If Iran completes its nuclear program and arrives at the bomb, 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.


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