After more than seven years of estrangement, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran have agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations.
This major breakthrough between two arch enemies in the Middle East was mediated by the Chinese government, according to both Tehran and Riyadh.
China’s top diplomat Wang Yi has been leading mediation talks with Iran’s National Security Council head Ali Shamkhani and Saudi Arabia’s National Security Council adviser Mosaed Bin Mohammad Al-Aiban since March 6th.
Not only does the revival of ties between Riyadh and Tehran have wide-ranging consequences for the entirety of the region, but it also gives Beijing significant diplomatic clout for orchestrating the mediation.
Per the new agreement, both Iran and Saudi Arabia will reopen embassies in each other’s countries within an eight-week timeframe in a move that confirms “their respect for the sovereignty of nations and noninterference in their internal affairs.”
Additionally, Tehran and Riyadh will resume a security cooperation and an economic cooperation agreement initially signed in the early 2000’s in the near future. The former Middle East rivals thanked the Chinese government for their role in mediating the talks, as well as Iraq and Oman for hosting previous discussions in 2021 and 2022.
When and how did Saudi-Iranian relations sour?
While the most recent breaking of ties between Riyadh and Tehran occurred in 2016 after a group of Iranian protestors invaded Saudi diplomatic posts in the country, tensions between the two countries date back to the 1979 Iranian revolution. Riyadh was weary of the establishment of an Islamic Republic, considering its dominance in the Muslim world at the time. The newly installed Iranian regime was also critical of the Kingdom, openly questioning the religious legitimacy of the Saudi regime. Tensions steadily increased during this period, and Saudi Arabia quietly supported Iraq throughout the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980’s.
A glimmer of friendship between Riyadh and Tehran emerged when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Both countries rejected the use of force and official ties were restored the following year.
By the early 2000’s, Riyadh embarked on its largest military operation since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. This time, the Kingdom was reacting to Iranian-backed rebels crossing into the country, seizing territory and killing two border guards. The Houthi militants also led a low-level insurgency on Yemen’s northern border with Saudi Arabia in 2004. Not wanting a rogue regime positioned at its borders, Riyadh aided Yemen’s defensive efforts.
The conflict continued to intensify and reached a breaking point in 2014, when the Houthis violently seized control of Yemen’s northern Saana province and forced the removal of its government. Tensions escalated further when the then-President of Yemen Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was exiled from the country. Iran was furious that the Saudi military took the side of the Yemeni government at the onset of the conflict, extending the feud between the two Middle East countries.
Iran’s involvement in the Houthi uprising was a turning point for Saudi Arabia
Iran’s direct role in funding the Houthi’s offensive effort through monetary assistance and weapons transfers was largely recognized at this point. During the years leading up to the Saana takeover, Iran sneakily exploited domestic unrest in Yemen and successfully created a power vacuum allowing for an easier takeover. Saudi-Iranian tensions worsened once Tehran began exporting more advanced and lethal weapons to the Houthis as the conflict continued.
As explained by War on the Rocks, the rebels assembled deconstructed weapons parts into “working weapons with technical assistance from Hezbollah and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps advisers.
This approach has allowed the Houthis to now field short and long-range drones and an increasingly diversified fleet of missiles capable of striking deep inside Saudi Arabia. Houthi forces have also used Chinese-made C-801 anti-ship missiles, with a range of 42 kilometers, for attacks on tankers in the Red Sea. These missiles were part of the national army’s arsenal prior to 2014 and were seized during the war. But they were quite possibly modified further with Iranian or Hezbollah assistance.”
How long will the Houthi-Yemen ceasefire last?
Houthi attacks have not been limited to Yemen. In 2019, tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia heightened when a missile and drone barrage targeting Riyadh’s primary oil installation briefly disrupted almost 50% of the kingdom’s crude production. The international community, led by the United Nations, has attempted to achieve long-lasting ceasefires between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia for years.
In 2021, Riyadh proposed an agreement that would allow the main airport in Saana to reopen and reopen sea links in the country so that food and fuel imports could flow through the country. Houthi officials rejected the proposal and continued to launch offensives throughout Yemen.
In April 2022, another ceasefire negotiated by the UN was accepted by both the rebels and the Yemeni government. Although the truce has not been extended since last lapsing in October, the conflict has slowed down quite a bit. The recent mediations between Riyadh and Tehran could hopefully lead to a much-needed cessation in violence across Yemen.
The rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia comes as Tehran suffers from domestic turmoil and isolation from the international community. Iran has brutally cracked down on women’s rights protests that have swept the country since September. Additionally, Iran has been ramping up the development of its nuclear program as negotiations in Vienna have stalled. While the Iran-Saudi revival of official ties is a step in the right direction in terms of relations, the two Middle East countries will not become close allies overnight.
Perhaps the Kingdom is taking the saying “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” to heart.
Maya Carlin is a Senior Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.