On March 10, news broke that Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations in a deal brokered by Beijing. The deal has already sparked a mixture of celebration and consternation. After seven years of a diplomatic freeze, the thaw in relations could help bring stability to a region that has suffered from a decades-long cold war between the two countries. On the other hand, it highlights China’s increasing rise as a powerbroker, causing some to lambast the Biden administration as weak and disengaged. Moreover, the deal may squander efforts to formalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, a priority for American policymakers in the region. But the truth is that diplomatic restoration between the Saudis and Iranians is unlikely to reset the strategic map of the Middle East. American officials should welcome any attempt to ease tensions, but it should also move forward with its efforts to expand the Abraham Accords.
First, it is worth noting that Saudi Arabia and Iran have experimented with détente in the past. In the 1990s, the two countries tried to heal their wounds with various diplomatic exchanges and gestures after heightened tensions during the 1980s. Instead of Beijing, it was Washington doing the prodding. At the time, Iran was severely weakened after a brutal war of attrition with Iraq. Saudi Arabia, too, was hoping to shore up the image of Islamic unity at home, still reeling from the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque complex in Mecca. Both were also happy to contain Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait. In 1991, the countries resumed diplomatic relations. Seven years later, in 1998, Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani visited Riyadh for ten days to much fanfare.
But the détente did not last long. Partly due to Iran’s continuing development of its nuclear program, and partly due to the heightened sectarian violence in Iraq, the countries reverted to their previous postures. Iranians again denounced the Saudi kingdom as apostates. The Saudis returned the favor by encouraging Wahhabi preachers to condemn the Shia as rafidha. We see similar conditions today. There is no reason to believe that Iran will cease its progress toward nuclear armament just as there is no reason to believe that Saudi Arabia will sit back as a quiet observer. Diplomatic engagement and dialogue may ease tensions, but the two countries are locked into strategic opposition so long as Iran remains committed to becoming a nuclear power.
If this is the case, the renewal of diplomatic ties does not indicate a serious change in the regional strategic map, but rather a momentary pause. Both countries have reason to capitalize on such a pause in hostilities. Iran has been desperate to escape diplomatic isolation since it became clear a year ago that the nuclear talks with the United States would not progress. Domestically it has some tending to do. For the past seven months, Tehran has dealt with countrywide protests which recently have been reinvigorated. What is more, the country faces a worsening economic crisis and a currency meltdown. Saudi Arabia, for its part, is still aiming to diversify its economy with Vision 2030. Betting on large-scale international tourism, the country’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), may be realizing that peace bought by pragmatic engagement is more conducive to foreign investment than adventures in Yemen.
These incentives to engagement, however, do not change the layout of the Middle East chess board. Iran remains a revisionist power that has capitalized on regional chaos. It maintains well-armed, extremist factions in Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria with strong influence in Iraq. So long as Iran’s leaders hold fast to Ruhollah Khomeini’s mission to spread the revolution, they will work to extend their vision of Islamic government and, in turn, challenge conservative powers like Saudi Arabia. But there is no evidence that Iranian leaders have tossed Khomeinism. In fact, their stubborn response to the recent bout of protests suggests a firm resolve.
If Saudi Arabia and Iran are still in the throes of a power competition born out of ideological cleavage, then the recent news of normalization changes little. The United States, then, should not change its previous course: build a regional bloc of conservatively-minded powers to contain Iran and foster peace in the region. This bloc is already at work on a subterranean level, but its consolidation requires normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, i.e., formal expansion of the Abraham Accords.
Despite fears of the contrary, dreams of a fully matured Abraham Accords are alive and well. In late February, Oman announced that it would allow all passenger flights access to its airspace, including Israeli planes. What is more, just hours before the deal between Riyadh and Tehran was announced, details were released of what it would take to normalize ties with Israel. The timing of this latter announcement is everything. Riyadh knows it cannot trust Tehran. It knows that Israel wants nothing more than to normalize ties. And it knows how to get American attention. The Saudis are not making lasting peace with Iran. They are goading the United States, trying to increase their leverage in ongoing talks about Israel. That the Saudis are even publicly considering progress with Israel is particularly revealing considering the ongoing violence in the West Bank.
The Saudi price tag for normalizing ties with Israel is steep. The Saudis demand a Palestinian state, further American security assistance, and American aid in developing a civilian nuclear program. But, like negotiating with a used car salesman, one never pays the sticker price. The Saudis are prudent enough to know that Israel will not go for a two-state solution, but they may well require that Israel work to calm tensions in the West Bank and corral the extremist voices in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Similarly, the Saudis may be less eager to go nuclear if they have assurances that the United States will help prevent Iranian nuclear armament and stop any fantasy of reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. In a similar vein, selling offensive arms to Saudi Arabia will not aggravate the civil war in Yemen as some fear—MBS is tired of this conflict and knows that prospects for a decisive victory are gone. Selling offensive arms to a security ally should not be controversial.
In short, diplomacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran is neither inimical to U.S. interests nor is it a herald of a new era of Middle East peace. U.S. policymakers should welcome any effort to ease tensions between the countries. It should also continue to strengthen an alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Abraham Accords, not the Beijing talks, will bring a more lasting peace to the Middle East.
Max J. Prowant is a Philos Project Research Fellow with In Defense of Christians. He is also a Ph.D. Candidate in Government at the University of Texas at Austin.