Mar 13, 2023
By Nadeen Ebrahim, Abbas Al Lawati and Hadas Gold, CNN
Abu Dhabi and JerusalemCNN — Saudi Arabia and Iran have given each other just two months to prove they are serious about Friday’s surprise agreement to normalize ties.
Before ambassadors are reinstated, the two nations are likely to be discussing ways to end almost seven years of hostility, a large task given how far-reaching the implications could be.
The reconciliation happens as Iran finds itself increasingly isolated on the world stage and Saudi Arabia changes the course of its foreign policy in favor of diplomacy instead of confrontation.
With a focus on economic development, Saudi Arabia and its neighbor, the United Arab Emirates, have in recent years moved to mend fences with most of their regional adversaries.
Riyadh has walked back from a hawkish foreign policy it had adopted when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman entered the picture after his father King Salman took the throne in 2015. It has reconciled with Turkey, re-engaged with Syria, and supported a ceasefire in Yemen.
But it had left the most difficult of the dossiers, and perhaps the most important of all, till the end. It surprised the world last week when it announced a deal to normalize ties with Iran after years of talks that appeared to have borne no fruit.
The Iran-Saudi cold war has had an impact on almost every conflict in the region. Its resolution therefore could have equally strong repercussions. Here’s what the ripple effects may be:
Yemen has been one of the countries most affected by Riyadh and Tehran’s spat. The two nations supported opposing factions in the 2014 Yemen civil war, and in 2015, a Saudi-led coalition intervened to fight the Iran-backed Houthi rebels that had overrun the country.
The Yemen war was likely the priority on the agenda for both countries, said Firas Maksad, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC and adjunct professor at George Washington University.
The country has witnessed relative calm following an April UN-brokered truce. That truce exp
ired in October but appears to be holding anyway and Saudi Arabia has been engaged in direct talks with the Houthis.
In a Saturday statement, the Iranian mission to the United Nations said the reconciliation “would accelerate the ceasefire, help start a national dialogue, and form an inclusive national government in Yemen,” Iran’s state news agency IRNA reported.
Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC, told CNN that Iran may use its leverage against the Houthis to push for a resolution to the war.
“It’s very likely that Tehran had to commit to pressuring its allies in Yemen to be more forthcoming on ending the conflict in that country, but we don’t know yet what behind-the-scenes understandings have been reached,” he said.
A member of the Houthis’ political wing, Abdulwahab al-Mahbashi, told Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV that a resolution to the Yemen conflict must be achieved through direct negotiations with Riyadh as the Houthis are not “subordinate” to the Iranians, Al Arabiya reported Sunday.
Lebanon has been suffering a crippling financial crisis. Its once-closest Arab ally and benefactor Saudi Arabia largely disengaged from it following a years-long spat prompted by Iran-backed Hezbollah’s clout in the country.
Relations hit their lowest in 2021, when Saudi Arabia and some of its Gulf Arab allies withdrew ambassadors from Beirut following the then-Lebanese information minister’s earlier criticism of the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen.
Envoys later returned, but Saudi-Lebanese ties are still frosty.
Both Hezbollah and the Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati praised the Saudi-Iran deal, with Mikati calling it an “opportunity to breathe in the region, and look to the future.”
Analysts, however, say that doesn’t mean that Lebanon’s relations with Riyadh will improve automatically.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan on Friday said that Lebanon needed “Lebanese rapprochement” for the situation in Lebanon to improve, not “Saudi-Iranian rapprochement,” Al Arabiya reported.
The deflective answer suggests that Saudi Arabia may be separating its grievances with Lebanon from its conflict with Iran.
“Lebanon is not high on the priority of policy-makers in Riyadh,” said Firas Maksad.
“There are much more consequential files in Riyadh to be concerned about before addressing the challenges in Lebanon,” he told CNN, adding that Lebanon is currently more important to the Iranians than it is to the Saudis, and that unless that changes, Hezbollah “in its current form” is likely to remain “the dominant player in Lebanon.”
The reconciliation has also made its way to Israel’s domestic political debate.
Hours before the deal was announced, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Italy, extolling one of his major goals: Normalization with Saudi Arabia.
For Israel, peace with Saudi Arabia is seen as the apex of normalization agreements. Even though behind-the-scenes relations have been ongoing for years, full-blown peace would be a major achievement, and one of the key elements in forming a regional alliance to counter Iran.
Then reality hit later on Friday that Israel’s longtime and foremost foe, and Netanyahu’s would-be next best friend, were reconciling. And the blame game began in the Israeli political establishment.
Israeli newspaper Haaretz cited an unidentified “senior political source in Rome” as blaming the former government, led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid for the reconciliation.
In turn, former prime ministers Lapid and Bennett said Netanyahu has been neglecting the situation in the broader Middle East, focusing instead on his government’s efforts to enact a controversial judicial overhaul.
Lapid tweeted that blaming him for the deterioration of the relationship with Saudi Arabia was “delusional,” saying that while he and Bennett were in power, Riyadh signed an aviation agreement with Israel, direct flights for the Hajj were arranged and a security agreement related to islands in the Red Sea was signed with Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
“All this came to a screeching halt when the most extreme government in the country’s history was established here and it became clear to the Saudis that Netanyahu was weak and the Americans stopped listening to him,” Lapid tweeted.
“The countries of the world and the region are watching Israel in conflict with a dysfunctional government that is engaged in systematic self-destruction,” Bennett tweeted on his own thread.
Netanyahu did not mention the deal in remarks ahead of the weekly Israeli Cabinet meeting on Sunday, and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had no comment on the development.
Iraq, which hosted several rounds of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, was quick to welcome the reconciliation.
Analysts say it’s in Baghdad’s interest for the reconciliation to go through as the country had become an arena for Iranian-Saudi rivalry since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003.
“Iran has used Iraq to add pressure to Saudi Arabia in all areas, including political, economic and specifically security pressure,” said Ihsan Al-Shammari, a politics professor at Baghdad University and head of the Iraqi Centre for Political Thought.
Iraq, he said, missed out on improving ties with Saudi Arabia and potentially large investments in the country due to Iran’s heavy influence in the country.
Iran-aligned parties have long held influence in Iraqi politics and have at times caused political deadlock that has culminated in violence.
Al-Shammari said Saudi Arabia would want Iran to rein in some of its allies in Iraq, especially armed paramilitary groups that it sees as a security threat. He added however that that may be a pipe dream as Iran sees Iraq as a vassal state and that its allies in parliament will want to preserve their Tehran-aligned interests.
The Iranian foreign ministry didn’t respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have for years been engaged in a bitter media war, where news outlets allegedly backed by each government have been accused of inciting against the other.
Iran’s state-backed Arabic language news channel Al Alam and English language Press TV regularly run programming critical of Saudi Arabia and are blocked in much of the Arab world.
Saudi Arabia in turn is accused by Iran of funding Iran International, a Farsi language news channel that regularly interviews Tehran’s adversaries and covers protests against the government. Iran has labeled the channel a “terrorist organization.” Iran International has denied connections to the Saudi government. Saudi Arabia also owns the Farsi franchise of the British newspaper The Independent.
How the media war plays out will demonstrate the viability of the Iran-Saudi agreement to normalize relations. Analysts have said Saudi Arabia has invested in Persian-language media outlets to build leverage over Iran in talks after over a decade of an Iranian media assault against Saudi Arabia.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that Saudi Arabia has agreed to tone down critical coverage of the Islamic Republic by Iran International, citing unidentified officials from both countries. Last month, Iran International said it was relocating its operations to Washington, DC from London due to “the Islamic Republic’s threats.”