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Source: Foreign Policy

Jun 12, 2023

Saudi-Iranian Rapprochement Has Failed to Bring De-escalation
From Syria to Israel’s borders to the Strait of Hormuz, Iranian de-escalation is nowhere to be found.

By Steven A. Cook, a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

When the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to resume diplomatic relations was announced on March 10, many U.S. officials and commentators welcomed it. Even though the Chinese-sponsored deal was an apparent blow to the United States’ status in the Middle East, experts speculated that normalization between the Saudis in Riyadh and the Iranians in Tehran would lead to regional de-escalation.

The well-respected Economist Intelligence Unit best summed up this view, declaring, “Greater dialogue and co-operation between Saudi Arabia and Iran rather than antagonism and active support for rival factions would remove an important destabilising dynamic from the region’s conflict zones”—though the unnamed authors acknowledged that violence remained possible. Others suggested that the agreement could provide a range of benefits beyond the conflict zones, including an end to Iran’s meddling in Bahrain, renewed Saudi investment in Iran, and even improved chances for nuclear nonproliferation.

Greater dialogue and cooperation between the Saudis and Iranians is positive, of course. Yet despite the planned exchange of ambassadors and an invitation from Saudi King Salman to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to visit Saudi Arabia, de-escalation has not happened. A tour around the region, from Syria to Israel’s borders to the Strait of Hormuz, indicates the opposite. It is early, of course. The Beijing-brokered agreement is only three months old. But so far, it looks like the Iranians are leveraging normalization to press their regional advantage rather than diminish tensions.

The greatest promise of the Iran-Saudi Arabia normalization is peace in Yemen. The Saudis want to end their military intervention there and have sought help from Tehran, which has become a patron of Riyadh’s antagonists, the Houthis. But so far, normalization has not had a dramatic impact on the situation on the ground.

There is a cease-fire, ships can offload aid and goods at ports that were previously blocked, and the airport in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, is open. That is all good news, but these developments predate the Saudi-Iranian-Chinese agreement. There are peace talks, but an end to the conflict in Yemen remains elusive largely because the Houthis have been intransigent. Perhaps that will change, and perhaps it will be the result of the new dialogue between the Saudi and Iranian governments, but so far it is hard to argue that Yemen’s trajectory has improved markedly as a result of the agreement.

The situation elsewhere in the Middle East hardly seems better. Just three weeks after the Saudis and Iranians came to terms, Iranian proxies attacked U.S. forces in Syria, killing a U.S. contractor and injuring several U.S. soldiers. Iran’s agents routinely target the roughly 900 U.S. troops (and an undisclosed number of U.S. contractors) in Syria, but the resumption of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran was supposed to have salutary effects on tensions across the Middle East.

One can debate why the United States is in Syria, but if Tehran were interested in regional de-escalation, its allies would likely hold their fire. Instead, Iran remains committed to pushing the United States out of the Middle East; and clearly, it wants to put Americans under fire to accomplish that goal.

Not long after U.S. soldiers fended off drone strikes in Syria, Esmail Qaani, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, held a meeting with leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in Beirut. The result was coordinated rocket attacks on Israel from Lebanon, Syria, and the Gaza Strip. About a month later, in Syria’s capital, Damascus, Raisi met with Palestinian militant group leaders who reportedly expressed gratitude for Tehran’s support.

Iran’s goal seems to be an escalation of its shadow war with Israel. So far, the Israelis have had the clear advantage, routinely hitting Iranian and Iranian-aligned groups in Syria and Iraq. Until now, Iran has been unable to respond effectively on the battlefield; but Qaani evidently believes that if he can unite Iran’s proxies, he can reverse Iran’s fortunes. It may not work out that way for the Quds Force commander, however. The Israelis killed several PIJ commanders in fighting in early May as Hamas watched from the sidelines. There is no indication that this setback has caused Qaani to rethink his effort to escalate the conflict with Israel, though.

Then there are the waters of the Persian Gulf. In May, the Pentagon announced it was bolstering its “defensive posture” in the area. Why? Because the Iranians were, once again, threatening the sea lanes. After Qaani’s Beirut confab, the United States picked up information that Tehran was planning to attack commercial vessels in Middle Eastern waters.

In the span of just a week in late April and early May, Iranian forces seized two oil tankers; according to U.S. officials, Iran has harassed, attacked, or interfered with 15 internationally flagged commercial ships over the past two years. Tehran seems to be responding to U.S. sanctions enforcement, calculating that shipping—any shipping—in the Gulf is fair game. One of the tankers it took was steaming between Emirati ports in Dubai and Fujairah, even as the United Arab Emirates has normalized ties with Iran. That does not seem like de-escalation, does it?

The big story about the Iran-Saudi-China deal is not the development of a more stable, pacific Middle East in which regional actors take matters into their own hands to forge a better future. It is actually more straightforward than that: The Saudis lost, and normalization of diplomatic relations with Iran is just cover for that setback.

In a variety of ways, the Saudis seem ascendant: essentially buying the U.S. PGA Tour; pursuing policies independent of their patron, the United States; and investing everywhere from Beijing to the San Francisco Bay Area. But in the Middle East—specifically Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq—the Saudis has been unable to dislodge the Iranians, who have either reinforced or extended their influence in all four countries in recent years. Perhaps the most dramatic manifestation of this was Saudi Arabia’s willingness to bring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—who owes his continued rule in part to Iran—back into the Arab League’s good graces.

The Saudis may be masters of international golfing, but the Iranians have won where it counts. Now, having taken Riyadh off the table, Tehran is working to undermine what is left of the region’s anti-Iran regional coalition—a policy that includes going on the offensive against Israel and the United States.

For too long, bad assumptions have formed the basis of U.S. Middle East policy, including the notion that Iran’s leaders want to normalize ties with their neighbors. In reality, Iran does not want to share the region and is not a status quo power. The regime’s goal is to reorder the region in a way that favors Tehran, and with the Saudis now promising an ambassador and investment, the Iranians have determined they are now freer to advance their agenda. In other words, no de-escalation.

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