Tehran, Iran – Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations in a China-brokered deal that could have wide-ranging consequences but building on it, analysts say, will prove the main challenge.
The agreement signed in Beijing on Friday said the two countries’ foreign ministers will meet to discuss diplomatic missions within two months, marking the end of a seven-year rift.
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In Iran, the deal was generally welcomed, with senior officials praising it as a step towards reducing tensions and bolstering regional security. Conservative media outlets mainly focused on how the deal signalled a “defeat” for the United States and Israel.
Some of the same outlets had celebrated in 2016, when Riyadh cut political relations with Tehran after its diplomatic missions were attacked.
The invasion of the missions by demonstrators had come after the Sunni-majority kingdom executed a prominent Shia Muslim leader.
At that time, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei had also denounced Saudi leaders.
But none of the Iranian officials or state-linked media are now openly displaying pessimism as talks, that began in April 2021, finally bore fruit following efforts by China’s President Xi Jinping, who visited Saudi Arabia in December and hosted Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi last month.
The rapprochement on Friday was greeted with optimism by Iraq and Oman – who had previously helped mediate the talks – and many others in the region, while it was cautiously welcomed by the US.
‘High level of distrust’
The agreement is a positive development but is only one step of many, according to Tehran-based political analyst Diako Hosseini.
“Saudi Arabia will likely still be cautious in economic dealings with Iran because it does not want to be exposed to US sanctions. And normalisation does not necessarily mean that the two sides trust each other,” Hosseini told Al Jazeera. “Regardless, reducing tensions in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq can still entail wide-ranging interests for both sides.”
Hosseini added that ending the eight-year war in Yemen, where Iran and Saudi Arabia support opposing sides, could be the most important eventual outcome of the agreement, but it would be a difficult goal to achieve.
“The high level of distrust and the intensity of geopolitical rivalries may render the trend of reducing tensions reversible. To achieve success, both countries need to begin continuous and long-term efforts and try reliable ways that would guarantee mutual interests,” he said.
According to Hosseini, China was the big victor of the agreement, as it bolstered the legitimacy of its reach across the region.
“Effectively, not only China became the guarantor of this agreement, it also showed that the US can no longer ignore China’s role in the security arrangements of the Persian Gulf, a region where the energy reserves and passageways are more important to the Chinese economy than the US,” he said.
Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, agrees that Friday’s pact may serve to reduce tensions rather than resolve profound differences.
“Iran-Saudi tensions have ebbed and flowed for decades, but their floor has always been high,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that an exhausted Saudi Arabia has been looking for a way out of the Yemen conflict for a long time, and its agreement with Tehran could lead to an agreement with the Iran-backed Houthis.
“That said, it is very important to understand that such an agreement, if it were to occur soon, would unfortunately not lead to peace in Yemen,” he said, adding that conflict between the Houthis and the Saudi-backed coalition would continue and secessionist demands in southern Yemen would persist.
“A Houthi-Saudi agreement would see the violence shifting, not ceasing,” he said.
Juneau also said that Iran may make minor concessions on Yemen, but will not agree to end its support for the Houthis as part of any agreement with Saudi Arabia.
“Iran’s support for the Houthis has enabled it to build significant influence in the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula. Iran will not abandon this important tool in its portfolio.”
Significance of past agreements
Iran and Saudi Arabia have had a chequered history in their less than a century of formal diplomatic relations, which has also seen many ups and downs since the Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran.
The kingdom supported Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran in the 1980s but pursued closer ties with Tehran after the end of the war.
Tehran and Riyadh grew closer during the tenure of reformist President Mohammad Khatami in Iran, and signed a general cooperation agreement in 1998 and a security cooperation agreement in 2001.
Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s incumbent security chief who signed the agreement on Friday, was the defence minister at the time and played a major role in efforts to bring the two countries together, even receiving the Order of Abdulaziz medal, the highest award offered by the kingdom, in the early 2000s.
The fact that the two agreements that were signed decades ago were directly mentioned in the text of Friday’s agreement, with both sides pledging to implement them, is a significant development, according to Sina Toossi, a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC.
“The mention of these past agreements could be seen as a nod to the positive relations that existed between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the late 1990s and early 2000s. By referencing this period of positive relations, the statement could be seen as an attempt to recapture this spirit of cooperation between the two countries,” he told Al Jazeera.
Toossi said the 1998 agreement covered a range of issues, including deeper security, economic and cultural cooperation and laid the basis for the landmark security agreement in 2001.
“This period in Iran-Saudi ties was marked by the creation of joint security institutions, increased trade, the issuing of business visas to each other’s citizens, and regular high-level diplomatic contact.”
Mentioning these past agreements also highlights the potential for increased cooperation and dialogue, according to Toossi.
“The two sides are implicitly acknowledging that there is common ground between them on issues such as regional security and economic cooperation. These past agreements could serve as a starting point for future discussions between the two countries on resolving their differences,” he said.
However, it remains to be seen how the two will handle a number of sensitive issues, including concerns about their military and nuclear programmes, as well as internal affairs.