American Position on the Saudi-Iranian Agreement

Having an accurate understanding of the problem greatly helps in finding solutions. Beijing sees that the common understanding of the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is wrong, and the United States has worked to solidify and promote the idea that it is a religious and sectarian conflict that dates back more than 1400 years, meaning that present generations cannot seek a solution to it or forget it.

While the facts prove that it is just a political conflict and religion has been employed to play an inciting role, and there is plenty of evidence of that. Prior to the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the Shah’s regime (Shiite) was distinguished, as both were operating in the American orbit.

After the Islamic Revolution, there was talk of the idea of “exporting the revolution,” meaning that this revolutionary trend would reach the Arab reactionary states that took positions that were not decisive regarding the Palestinian issue and other issues. Meanwhile, Western media and markets promoted the idea of “exporting the revolution” as aiming to spread Shiite thought to the countries of the region (Sunni), in order to incite Sunni Islamist movements to stand against it and oppose it. This led Saudi Arabia (the religious state) to stand and support former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran. The reason here is political, not religious.

The Islamic Republic of Iran also supported many Sunni resistance movements, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and supported former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s regime. It also supported former Lebanese Prime Minister Omar Karami and Imran Khan in Pakistan. This shows that these stances are primarily for political considerations, not religious or sectarian considerations.

Here, it can be said that Iran has surpassed Saudi Arabia in its political alliances. While Saudi alliances were limited to Sunni states and movements only, Tehran established political alliances with some Sunni and Shiite states.

The change in the Saudi position towards Tehran:

In 2015, Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Russia and met with President Putin in St. Petersburg, expressing his concern about the increasing Iranian influence in Syria.

The relationship between the two countries became very tense in 2016 after the Kingdom executed the Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, which was strongly criticized by Iran and led to the severing of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Before that, the relationship between the two countries was not good despite the existence of diplomatic relations between them. The Kingdom’s view of Tehran was that it was the “head of the snake” that must be cut, according to Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.

When Prince Mohammed bin Salman became Crown Prince in 2017, he adopted a hard-line stance towards Tehran, threatening to take the battle inside Iran, “we will not wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia.”

However, this hardline stance did not last long as there was a change in the Saudi position towards Iran, which was due to several reasons:

The Saudi position towards Tehran has undergone changes in recent years. In 2015, Prince Mohammad bin Salman visited Russia and met with President Putin in St. Petersburg, expressing his concern over the increasing Iranian influence in Syria. Relations between the two countries became increasingly tense in 2016 after the Kingdom executed Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, which was strongly criticized by Iran and led to the severing of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Prior to that, the relationship between the two countries was not good despite having diplomatic relations. The Kingdom’s view of Tehran was that it was the “head of the snake” that needed to be cut, in the words of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.

When Prince Mohammad bin Salman became Crown Prince in 2017, he took a hardline stance towards Tehran, threatening to take the fight inside Iran, saying “we will not wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia”. However, this stance did not last long and there was a shift in the Saudi position towards Iran due to several reasons.

Regarding the American position towards the Kingdom, US policy towards Saudi Arabia during President Biden’s administration played a role in the changes in Saudi foreign policy. During his election campaign, Biden spoke about the impossibility of meeting with Prince Mohammad bin Salman and went further, threatening to hold him accountable for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Therefore, Prince Mohammad bin Salman found himself closer to Iran’s allies, namely Russia and China.

The personal motives of the Saudi Crown Prince also played a role in these changes. Starting from his primary goal of smoothly ascending to the throne, and in light of the tension in the relationship with the United States, the Kingdom worked to minimize its problems with neighboring countries, especially Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and then Syria and ultimately Iran.

As the kingdom has formed a conviction of the importance of dialogue with Iran for several reasons:

  • The increasing Iranian influence in the region, especially in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
  • The lack of trust in the United States, which engaged in negotiations with Tehran about its nuclear program and signed an agreement during the Obama era (Democratic, without any role for the Kingdom or opinion).
  • The conviction that there is no solution to the ongoing disputes in the region other than diplomacy and dialogue, and there is no room to exclude Iran from any security arrangements in the region.
  • The desire of the Kingdom to put an end to the Yemen war, benefit from the oil boom, and the world’s need for it, especially after the Ukrainian war, which requires ensuring security and stability in the region. Therefore, the Kingdom entered into a dialogue with Tehran through Iraqi and Omani mediation at the time, and this dialogue had achieved some progress. However, an agreement the size of the Saudi-Iranian agreement requires a large state to be the guarantor of it.
  • The bombing that occurred at Aramco in 2019 by a drone, which the Houthis claimed responsibility for, resulted in the Saudi oil pumping being halted by half at the time. The United States did nothing against Iran, which made the Kingdom feel in a state of strategic exposure, and pushed it to rearrange its calculations.
  • Starting from 2021, the Kingdom began to think in a different and more rational way, meaning that it began to see that the collapse of the regime in Iran would not be in its interest, for several reasons:
  • The two countries are somewhat similar (religious countries), and if something happens in Iran (the fall of the Shiite religious regime there may transfer to the Kingdom with the Sunni religious regime), according to the theory of dominoes, as happened in the events of the “Arab Spring,” for example.
  • The Shiites in the Arab Gulf countries are somewhat disciplined to the Iranian will, and if something happens to Tehran, this means the absence of “reference” for them, and thus more chaos and instability will occur. This means that the Houthis and other Shiite factions will become more dangerous and pose a threat to the Kingdom.

Iranian Response:

Tehran excelled in its ability to seize opportunities and deal with political events pragmatically, and managed to align its principles with its interests, based on its possession of two political paths (hardliners and conservatives). From here, it was able to identify its goals and deal realistically with events, so it sought reconciliation with Saudi Arabia for several reasons:

  • The United States withdrew from the nuclear agreement signed with Tehran, so Tehran is no longer bound by its commitments and will work to export its oil, taking advantage of the world’s need for it.
  • The difficult economic conditions that the Iranian people are suffering from as a result of the sanctions imposed by the West.
  • The agreement with Saudi Arabia opens the door for Tehran to start relations with other Gulf countries, and we have seen a quick response to this from Bahrain, for example.
  • Protests and unstable security situations in Iran, in which Israel played a major role, and Saudi Arabia played a role in supporting those protests, at least on the media level. Therefore, stopping propaganda campaigns against Iran will help it close this file.
  • Strong strategic partnerships between Tehran and the Chinese-Russian axis, of which the Kingdom will be a part, even if it takes some time for Saudi Arabia to dismantle its close ties with the United States.
  • Consolidation of Iranian influence in a number of Arab countries, in exchange for possible political concessions or Saudi silence.
  • The beginning of talk about the inevitability of political change in Iran, in light of the declining health of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution and his advancing age. And the Western bets on change in Iran after Khamenei.

The American position on the agreement:

The United States still wields significant influence in the Middle East, and has strategic relations with Saudi Arabia, as well as a historical animosity towards Iran. This means that any agreement that ignores the American factor will not achieve its goals.

Therefore, Beijing did not oppose the United States’ recognition of the steps taken in this agreement, which the Saudis openly stated when they said that they were putting the American administration in every step that was being taken.

The American position can be understood from two angles:

The United States is in favor of any reconciliation between the two countries, to ensure the flow of oil, but the Middle East is no longer a priority for them in light of the Ukrainian war, the growing Chinese influence, and the US’s desire to confront it.

The United States had welcomed the idea, believing that it would be a failure of Chinese policy, as they viewed the task as impossible. In other words, the American rejection was not based on the principle of reconciliation, but because it came through Chinese mediation, which increased Beijing’s soft power, particularly in the Middle East region.

The lesson is not only in the principle of reconciliation, nor in restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries, but rather in reaching a sincere conviction in the two countries of the importance of this for their countries and the region in general. We have noticed the official and popular welcome to this step, because it is the way to resolve many files in Yemen, Lebanon and Syria. The success of this reconciliation will encourage Beijing to engage in more initiatives towards the Middle East region.

Shaher Al Shaher
Shaher Al Shaher
Associate Professor School of International Studies Sun Yat-Sen University/ China Professor at the Faculty of Political Science - University of Damascus (previously)