03/16/2023, 10.53
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Satloff: agreement with Tehran Riyadh's 'strategic' choice. Yemen first test

by Dario Salvi

According to the Washington Institute expert the resumption of relations is "significant". The exaltation of Beijing as mediator is exaggerated. There is no "game change" on the part of the Saudis, but a desire to widen the circle of their partners. A lasting truce must be reached in Yemen. Israel, like the Emirates, can take advantage and extend the Abrahamic Agreements. Saudi Arabia opens for investment in Iran.

Milan (AsiaNews) - The resumption of relations between Tehran and Riyadh is "significant", but there is exaggeration about Beijing's role "as mediator" or Riyadh's "strategic change", whose goal is to minimise "external security threats" in order to continue reforms, according to Robert Satloff, executive director of The Washington Institute.

The expert on Middle Eastern issues and Arab-Israeli politics in an interview with AsiaNews emphasises that an "initial test" of the agreement will be played out in Yemen, where a lasting truce will have to be "built and maintained". And unlike others, he believes that the game for Israel is far from lost because "an easing of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran" opens the door "to stronger ties between Riyadh and Israel" as the United Arab Emirates recently did.

Tehran and Riyadh severed relations in 2016 over the assault on the Saudi consulate in Iran in response to the execution of Shia leader Nimr al-Nimr. A dispute that triggered regional repercussions, including the isolation of Qatar (broken off in early 2021) because it was considered too close to Tehran. The two regional powers are on opposite sides in many dossiers, from Yemen to Syria, as well as representing the two main reference points for Shia and Sunni Islam.

However, in April two years ago, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (Mbs) said he wanted good relations with Tehran. A shift also brought about by the change of administration in Washington, with the transition from Donald Trump's 'maximum pressure' to the so far unsuccessful attempt to revive the nuclear agreement. And today's news is the announcement of possible investments by Riyadh "in the near future" in Iranian territory. This was said by Mohammed Al-Jadaan, the Saudi Minister of Finance, who sees "multiple opportunities" in the Islamic Republic and there is no reason to rule out "significant" investments between the parties.
Below the full interview with Robert Satloff:

Focusing on the resumption of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran there many different opinions: someone think of it as a major event. Different analysts are convinced that it doesn’t represent a breakthrough on the relations between the two countries and it won’t change balances and alliances in the region. What do you think about its value? And what are the benefits (if there are any!) in the near future for Riyadh and Tehran respectively?

The resumption of Saudi-Iran relations is significant but it has triggered exaggerated reaction both about China’s emergence as a regional powerbroker and about a strategic shift of Riyadh away from its traditional partners toward Beijing. In my view, the decision was principally a tactical decision by Riyadh to achieve near-term calm in Yemen and other fronts with Iran so as to pursue its energetic policy of domestic economic, social and cultural reform with a minimum of external security threats. Traditionally, the United States had been the prime provider of security but the Saudis had finally tired of successive administrations either tying Saudi hands or signaling their eagerness to unshackle themselves from regional security responsibilities. But restoring relations with Iran does not mean Riyadh is leaving the American security orbit in favor of an alliance with Tehran. Saudi ties with the US national security infrastructure are too deep – and Saudi differences with Iran on ideological, political, and strategic matters too profound – for this to be more than a tactical shift, one whose long-term outcome remains uncertain. Indeed, Riyadh seems more inclined to want to diversify its sources of security than to make a dramatic shift from one bloc to another. In this regard, one can imagine Saudi Arabia expanding the circle of its security partners to include a higher profile for Europeans (British and French) and even room for Israel, if it acts smartly to become a helpful source of partnership in high-value areas.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have given each other just two months to prove they are serious about Friday’s agreement. From this announcement, there will be in a near future major events/steps taken by the two sides in the perspective of dialogue, cooperation, agreements (not to forget their hegemony role in the Muslim world)?

One test of the agreement will be Yemen — maintaining and building upon the truce. Another test will be the hajj at the end of June, a frequent setting of Iranian mischief against Saudi Arabia. I am sure there will be other tests along the way. 

Let’s focus on China role and mediation: Is it really a diplomatic (and economic) success for Beijing in the Middle East region? And is it in some way intended to change the balance of force with the U.S. in the area and a further sign of Washington “disengagement” in the region? 

I think there is much less than meets the eye to China’s role as midwife of this agreement. Indeed, it is unlikely that Riyadh places too much stock in faraway China as a real source of security. Rather, turning to China as apparent mediator of Saudi-Iranian rapprochement was most likely a deliberate slap at the Biden administration, perhaps to make up for the White House’s refusal to apologize for the president’s politicized criticism of Saudi oil policy in September or the fact that the administration has refused to publicly and amicably close the subsequent Saudi policy review. But it is important to note that the day after the agreement was announced, there was another mega-deal announced — this time, about a multi-billion dollar Saudi purchase of more than a hundred Boeing aircraft. The Saudis want to diversify their relationships, not switch teams.

Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq... there are many stages in which Tehran and Riyadh operate and influence the internal affairs of those countries (and more), often clashing with each other in “proxy wars”. Will there be any evolutions/changing in these scenarios as well? 

Some of these arenas are more sensitive to one or the other party than the other. Yemen, is a higher priority for Saudi Arabia than for Iran; Lebanon, home to Hezbollah, is a higher priority for Iran than for Saudi Arabia. So we are likely to see shifts from the less engaged side in favor of the more committed side in those arenas. 

The reconciliation has also made its way to Israel’s domestic political debate and Israel itself seems to be the real “loser”. But is that really the case? Are the Abraham Accords destined to be stranded and don’t go any further in saudi soil or this resumption of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia won’t the process “normalisation” with Arab world (and Riyadh)? 

If anything, I think the Saudi-Iran lessening of tensions opens doors for Saudi-Israel ties more than closes them. Riyadh, in my view, is looking for a variety of security partners to create a “security portfolio.” If Israel convinces Saudi Arabia that it can bring value to the table, and if the US complements this with its own contributions, then there is no reason to dismiss the potential for Saudi-Israel normalization. Indeed, we have already seen that the Emiratis have deepened their ties with both Israel and Iran at the same time - there is no necessary reason why the Saudis cannot pursue a similar path. 

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See also
Tillerson: A Riyadh-Baghdad axis aimed at Tehran
23/10/2017 15:30
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Saudis and Houthis in secret talks in Oman to end Yemen conflict
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Religion as a political weapon in the war between Saudi Arabia and Iran
07/09/2016 16:21


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