The recently-announced agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic relations – they’ve been suspended since 2016 – has so many moving parts that it is not at all clear what it really means.
To be sure, a number of commentators were quick to note this as a broadside aimed at the Abraham Accords, which Saudi Arabia was on track to sign onto and become, together with Israel, part of a larger military deterrent against Iran in the Gulf. Israel’s freedom of action in responding to Iranian provocations was also said by some to be compromised.
According to the New York Times, Saudi officials said that the key to the agreement was Saudi Arabia’s immediate desire to end the draining proxy wars with Iran in Yemen. Citing “independent analysts,” the Times questions how far the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran will actually go, noting the decades of their sometimes violent competition for leadership in the Middle and the broader Islamic world.
Moreover, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman makes no secret of his intention to make Saudi Arabia the leading economic and military power in the Gulf region, competing with the at-least equally ambitious Iran.
Also significant is that Saudi Arabia has intensified security ties with Israel in recent years with a wary eye on Iran. The notion that all of this suddenly disappeared from the Saudi calculus doesn’t ring true. Additionally, as we have noted in these pages several times, Saudi leaders have decided to try to wean their economy off of its oil dependency, mindful that fossil fuels are on the way out. They look to the economic wonder that is Israel to help facilitate that transition. Thus not only has the Saudi need for Israel’s military strength not gone away, but neither has their need for Israel’s economic expertise.
Tellingly, the Saudi-Iran agreement was announced with great fanfare but put on hold for two months to allow the parties to work out the details. The announcement was also made at almost the same time reports surfaced that the Saudis were in discussions with the Biden Administration for U.S. security pledges and help with its civilian nuclear program as a part of a deal to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel.
To sum things up: We should not rush to judgment.