On March 10, Iran and Saudi Arabia announced reestablishing diplomatic relations, under Chinese good offices, after seven years of hiatus. The Iranian president appears poised to visit the kingdom in the near future. Some see Iran’s diplomatic rehabilitation and the apparent decline of the U.S. role in the Middle East as a threat. Yet concerned pundits overlook the changing regional balance of power and the opportunities coming with it.
The normalization deal results not from Iran’s strength but from Iran’s growing difficulties in sustaining its regional ambitions. Iran faces domestic troubles and new enemies while its regional endeavors remain fruitless.
On the domestic front, the Iranian regime has been confronting a massive protest movement since the death of Mahsa Amini at the local police’s hands in September 2022. These protests have turned in some regions into a latent insurgency. The protest movement has worsened the country’s already dire economic situation, forcing Tehran to refocus on domestic problems and new rivals.
The contestation aroused longstanding Iranian fears of Azerbaijani independentism and, beyond it, of Azerbaijan and Turkey. Iranian Azeris represent the majority of the population in three northwestern provinces of the country. Tehran worries that Azerbaijan supports Iranian Azeris’ actual or supposed separatism. It also resents Baku’s strong ties with Israel, Iran’s official enemy. Azerbaijan’s victory in its 2020 war against Armenia (which has good relations with Tehran) also reinforced its position, mechanically weakening Iran’s. Border incidents have become frequent, and, most dramatically, a gunman attacked the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran in January.
Iran’s worsening conflict with Azerbaijan entwines deeply with a new sense of Turkish threat unseen since the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. Turkey supports Azerbaijan against Armenia, Iran’s close partner. Furthermore, Turkey’s military occupation of several chunks of northern Syria, Iran’s foremost ally in the region, has worried the Iranians for many years. Ankara’s growing military encroachments over northern Iraq did little to allay these concerns. The establishment of a Turkish military base in Qatar right across the Gulf also added to Iran’s restlessness. Turkish expansionism poses a rising challenge to Iran’s core interests.
More broadly, Iranian endeavors throughout the Middle East cost the Iranians dearly for little tangible gains. Iran has spent billions subsidizing its allies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Palestine. The only clear-cut Iranian success is Assad’s victory in the Syrian Civil War, but Syria is now more Russia’s satellite than Iran’s. Yemen’s Houthis survived loyalist forces’ assaults but so far failed to conquer the whole country. Hamas and Hezbollah have proven unable or unwilling to harm Israel significantly. Although pro-Iranian militias roam Iraq, Baghdad still maintains its independence and a multivectorial foreign policy.
In addition, the growing trend among Arab states to normalize relations with Syria threatened to place Iran in an awkward position. Its main regional ally would have had working relations with its Arab rivals while itself would have stayed isolated. If Iran had not jumped on the appeasement bandwagon, it might have lost in the long term its hard-won influence over Damascus, lured away by Gulf petrodollars. Now that the Assad regime has emerged from the civil war as the victor, it needs Iranian military backing less than before. Diplomatic and economic support from the Arab world would dwarf anything a cash-strapped Iran could offer.
Iran’s internal difficulties, new threats on its northwestern borders, and costly regional stalemates pushed Tehran toward appeasing Saudi Arabia. But Riyadh, too, faces problems of its own, although less severe. It wants to extricate itself from the Yemeni quagmire, where it has failed since 2015 to defeat the Houthi regime. Riyadh needs to talk with the Iranians, the Houthis’ principal supporters, to end this conflict on acceptable terms. Also, the United States’ growing focus on great power competition and China diminishes Washington’s commitment to Saudi preferences and thus pushes the Kingdom to rethink its regional posture.
The Saudis have complicated relations with Turkey, too. Normalizing relations with Iran allows Tehran to focus on other priorities like northern Syria and Iraq. They would benefit greatly from letting the Iranians and the Turks fight each other in distant lands, thus leaving Riyadh free rein to consolidate its power at home and in its “near abroad,” the Arabian Peninsula.
Saudi Arabia understands it is unlikely to ever outdo Iran’s superior size, military power, and soon-to-be nuclear capabilities. Conversely, Tehran cannot seriously threaten Saudi survival. Its conventional military is in escheat and lacks the means to conquer Saudi Arabia and march on Riyadh. Furthermore, the Iranian army will remain unable to enter Saudi territory as long as Iraq maintains its independence. In addition, the Saudis still benefit from the United States’ nuclear umbrella and understand that a nuclear Iran is unlikely to nuke them out of the blue. Since neither could win, Riyadh and Tehran have agreed to a relative draw.
The Iran-Saudi Arabia normalization thus arises from Tehran’s growing weakness and Riyadh’s changing security environment. What would be the best course of action for the United States in that background?
First, Washington is deeply interested in building good relations with Iran, regardless of its nuclear program. The United States is refocusing its foreign policy toward great power competitors, primarily China. It cannot waste finite resources on feuding with Iran, a relatively weak state. On the contrary, Washington should want to improve its relations with Tehran—and Syria—to prevent it from supporting China or Russia. A nuclear Iran could even become a formidable buffer between Chinese and Russian power and the Persian Gulf.
In any case, Washington has no easy path to stop Iran’s nuclear program. An airstrike against Iran is unlikely to produce long-lasting success and would slow down Iran’s nuclear program for only a few months. A ground invasion is the surest way to eliminate the Iranian nuclear program. However, invading such a large country would be an operation of an unimaginable scale. The Iraqi and Afghani campaigns would pale in comparison, and the bloodshed would be immense.
In addition, regional powers are capable of containing even a nuclear Iran. The Middle East already counts a nuclear state, Israel, which could deter a nuclear-armed Iran if it ever had expansionist ambitions. Israel’s military capabilities combined with those of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states should suffice to prevent an Iranian bid for regional hegemony. Thus, Tehran does not represent a major threat to the United States, and Washington would be better off rethinking its approach toward Iran.
Second, the United States should use the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement as a foundation for a larger regional security architecture. Ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen open the Middle East doors to Washington’s main rivals, China and Russia. Regional instability also allows Turkey to harbor destabilizing expansionist ambitions. Reintegrating Iran into the regional concert could, in time, lead to a general Arab-Iranian-Israeli normalization. Such a depolarization would leave fewer openings for Beijing and Moscow to penetrate the region. Also, alleviating regional conflicts will free additional U.S. bandwidth for great power competition.
The Saudi-Iranian normalization remains far from a total reshuffle, and their longstanding mistrust will continue for the time being. It came out of exhaustion more than of a sincere desire for reconciliation. However, these evolutions offer the United States the opportunity to reduce regional cleavages and thus close possible avenues for Chinese and Russian power.
If the United States remains committed to confronting Iran at every corner for its nuclear program or human rights record, Washington’s regional position is likely to decline. Iran will growingly align with China and Russia to counteract American pressure, while the Arab-Iranian normalization will break Tehran’s isolation. Continuing the failed ‘maximum pressure’ campaign will only bring the worst of both worlds: a nuclear-armed Iran replaced at the center of regional politics, a springboard for Sino-Russian endeavors.
The current era of intense great power competition requires political imagination combined with astute diplomacy. Decisionmakers must keep foreign policy traditionalism and dogmatism about Iran from sacrificing this opportunity to advance essential American interests at little cost.
Dylan Motin is a Ph.D. candidate majoring in political science at Kangwon National University and a Marcellus Policy Fellow at the John Quincy Adams Society.