Long seen as a regional troublemaker and on the defensive from advances made by Israel, Iran sees the restoration of ties with its rival as a win for all sides, analysts say.
March 17, 2023, 1:04 p.m. ET
For years, Iran’s standing as a Mideast power has been battered on a number of fronts.
Some Arab neighbors have forged ties with Israel, giving it a foothold in the Persian Gulf. Regional states have closed down financial channels that once allowed Tehran to evade U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear and weapons programs.
Iran has also been engaged in a bruising battle for regional dominance with Saudi Arabia, with which it severed relations seven years ago, engaging in a proxy war in Yemen and competing for influence in Lebanon and Syria.
Last week, Iran took a step toward resolving some of those issues with an agreement to restore ties with Saudi Arabia, its archrival in the region and an influential power among the Sunni Arab countries of the region with which Tehran has been at odds.
In a deal brokered by China, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to reopen embassies in each other’s countries; revive an old security pact; not attack each other, even through proxies; tone down the rhetoric against one another in the news media and elsewhere; and not meddle in each other’s domestic affairs.
“We are moving from a strategy that was lose-lose for all sides to hopefully a win-win situation,” said Ali Akbar Behmanesh, a political analyst in Tehran close to the government. “We realized that in order to solve many of our problems we had to make peace with the Big Brother of the Arab world, and that is Saudi Arabia. The seven years of hostilities did not benefit our interests at all.”
The rupture between Saudi Arabia and Iran occurred in 2016 when a vigilante mob ransacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran after the execution of a Shia cleric by Saudi Arabia. Iran is predominately Shiite, while Saudi Arabia is mainly Sunni.
If the détente holds, analysts say, it could be transformational for the region, bringing an end to the proxy battle in Yemen and facilitating political resolutions in Lebanon and Syria. The United Nations said on Wednesday that the deal had created a momentum for renewed peace talks on Yemen.
For Iran’s government, the gains would be significant at a time when its legitimacy has been challenged at home with protests that erupted six months ago after a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, died in custody after being accused of violating the country’s hijab laws, and as it faces increasing isolation in the West as a result of its crackdown on dissent.
At the same time, negotiations between Iran and world powers to revive a nuclear deal that collapsed in 2018 when President Donald J. Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement have stalled with little prospect of revival.
Without a deal, sanctions on Iran’s oil revenues and banking activity will remain in place, contributing to the steady deterioration of the Iranian economy. The United States and Europe have also tried to isolate Iran for supplying Russia with drones used in the war in Ukraine.
Iran therefore needs all the friends — or, at least, non-enemies — it can get.
Saudi Arabia is a powerful regional player, considered a leader of the Sunni faith because of its custodianship of Islam’s holies sites and has close ties to the West. Iran also signaled a wider diplomacy outreach with other regional Sunni Arab countries immediately after the deal, and it says that normalizing relations with Bahrain is next on the agenda and that even Egypt might be on the table, too.
“Fortunately, we are seeing positive vibes in the region,” Nasser Kanaani, a foreign ministry spokesman, said last week. “These positive developments could happen with other countries in the region too, such as Bahrain.”
“We need to trust diplomacy more and take steps in this direction,” he said.
Mr. Kanaani said the region would benefit from greater cooperation and good relations between Egypt and Iran. Diplomatic relations between those two countries were ruptured after Egypt provided refuge to the Shah of Iran after the Iranian revolution of 1979.
This month, when a delegation from Iran’s Parliament traveled to Bahrain, a small Persian Gulf island that has been a flashpoint between Iran and Saudi Arabia, to attend a gathering of lawmakers, the Iranian news media reported that they had held back-channel negotiations about forging diplomatic relations. Bahrain does not have an embassy in Iran.
And on Thursday, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani — a powerful official who negotiated the Saudi deal in China — arrived in the United Arab Emirates with a delegation of senior financial and security officials, including the governor of the Central Bank.
The choice of Mr. Shamkhani, who is ethnically Arab and speaks Arabic, as an envoy for diplomacy with Arab countries indicates that the shift to a less confrontational stance in the region is endorsed by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who directs the Supreme National Security Council.
One of the aims of the rapprochement may be to check the growing influence in the region of Israel, which in 2020 reached a landmark accord with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, known as the Abraham Accords, mediated by the United States under President Trump.
The growing presence of Israel, which has engaged in a campaign of assassination and sabotage of sensitive sites in Iran, in such proximity to its borders has rattled the Iranian authorities, and Tehran has threatened retaliation if Israel uses the region as a launching pad for intelligence gathering or covert attacks on Iran. Israel, for its part, has long considered Iran and its nuclear program as an existential threat, viewing Saudi Arabia as a potential partner.
Mr. Shamkhani said the Saudi-Iran deal would counter Israel’s “nefarious activities” in the Persian Gulf. But beyond Israel, Mr. Shamkhani’s negotiations will also focus on financial channels and trade with the Emirates. Iran’s state news media reported on Friday that he will travel to Iraq next to sign a security pact.
The Emirates has served as an important financial hub for Iran, with a large population of expatriate Iranians who own trade and business enterprises. Iran long used the Emirates to evade sanctions, but the standoff with Saudi Arabia — a close ally of the Emirates — on top of pressure from the United States had restricted those channels.
Restraining Saudi-owned or affiliated news media outlets has been another thorny priority for Iran. At the center of the media negotiations was Iran International, a Saudi-owned and Washington-based Persian news channel, according to two Iranians familiar with the talks.
The Saudis say the channel is owned by private investors and not the government.
The news channel did not reply to requests for a comment.
Iran views the reconciliation with Saudi Arabia as a victory and a key part of a strategy to lower the temperature domestically and abroad, analysts said.
It is “a huge regional win for Tehran, since this vindicates the idea that ‘maximum pressure’ has failed,” said Sanam Vakil, the deputy director of the Middle East North Africa program at Chatham House, a London-based research group, referring to Mr. Trump’s campaign to force Iran to end its nuclear program and regional meddling.
Instead of waiting for the West to punish Iran into submission, the Arab states appear to have embraced engagement, Ms. Vakil said, adding: “It’s better to dialogue and incentivize Tehran rather than live on the precipice of uncertainty and missile attacks.”
Vivian Nereim contributed reporting.