The recent Saudi-Iranian rapprochement deal brokered by the Chinese government, which restored diplomatic relations between the two rival Persian Gulf nations after around seven years, has received wide media attention. Many political commentators and analysts have found the deal significant not only for its impact on Saudi-Iranian relationship but also for its implications for regional peace and stability and the role of China in global politics. Some commentators have referred to this diplomatic breakthrough as a seismic shift that has the potential to lead to strategic realignments and a new regional order in the Middle East, while others have downplayed it as an ephemeral and doomed political settlement.
From a longer-term historical view, however, the outcome of the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement will most likely fall between these two extremes. Structural conditions keep the two countries from forming strategic alignments but do not bar them from managing and stabilizing their rivalry and preventing its militarization.
The crucial question is whether the two governments can be strategically aligned at all and, if so, under what circumstances they might form such a relationship. Skeptics often dismiss the possibility of strategic alignment between Saudi Arabia and Iran on essentialist and primordial grounds. They refer to historical rivalry and animosity between Persians and Arabs—along with jurisprudential differences and historical conflicts between Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam—as the main barriers to strategic alignment between the two countries. They also refer to the rivalry between the two states for leadership of the Islamic world as preventing any strategic entente.
Although there may be some truth to these arguments, they are not the main drivers of the foreign policy orientations of the two countries and are often trumped by broader strategic considerations. It does not take a rigorous investigation to rule out the role of religious and primordial cultural factors in determining Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s strategic alignments. Iran’s cordial ties with Christian Armenia to the detriment of fellow Shiite Azerbaijan, its alignment with Sunni Palestinian militant organizations despite its Shiite identity, its strategic ties with Russia and China despite their poor treatment of their Muslim minorities, and its strategic partnership with various non-Muslim secular Latin American states are just some of the examples that bear out this assessment. The same can be said of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy alignments, such as its special relationship with the United States and its growing ties with China and Russia. Rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia over leadership of the Muslim world is also not salient within the current regional and global political context as both countries prioritize more urgent and critical national goals of economic development and security over international status and prestige.
What prevents the two states from forming strategic alignment is how they are positioned and disposed within and toward the existing global distribution of power. This defines different sources of threat for the two regimes both at the international and domestic levels, which make them not only incompatible for strategic partnership but also renders them rivals and potential threats to each other. Because of its historical experiences of colonial domination, including the subordinate relationship of the Shah’s regime with Washington, the Islamic revolution of 1979 constituted Iran as an anti-hegemonic state and defined the United States as the external “other’ and the largest source of existential threat to the post-revolutionary Iranian government.
As such, opposing U.S. domination and influence in the region became a tenet of the Iranian foreign policy and a means to securing the revolution and protecting Iran’s independence. By extension, many U.S. allies and client states in the region became rivals or adversaries to the post-revolutionary government. Being the largest and most influential Arab state in the Persian Gulf region and given its special client relationship with the United States, Saudi Arabia became a natural rival to the Islamic Republic. Despite some periods of normalcy and détente in the relationship of the two countries, Iranian officials have persisted in this view of Saudi Arabia over the past four decades.
In contrast, Saudi Arabia has formed a long-lasting alliance relationship with the United States and meets its security needs through partnership with Washington. This relationship has largely defined both external and internal sources of threat for the Saudi government. State and non-state actors vehemently opposed to the U.S.-led order and domination in the Middle East have been deemed as the main security challenges to the Saudi regime. Islamist political groups and secular revolutionary regimes in the Middle East have traditionally fallen into this category. With the fall of many secular nationalist and socialist Arab regimes—including Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi—Iran is perceived as the most formidable challenge to Saudi Arabia’s security interests and influence in the region. Although Islamist political groups continue to pose a potential subversive threat to Riyadh, Saudi rulers have considered them less threatening than “the head of snake,” a term they have figuratively used to refer to Iran. As the two most powerful countries in the Persian Gulf region, Iran and Saudi Arabia vied for regional dominance even during the Shah’s rule. But because of their identical disposition toward the global distribution of power, their rivalry was muted and never approached the level of intensity of Saudi-Iranian rivalry in the post-revolutionary period.
This, however, does not mean that Iran and Saudi Arabia cannot achieve détente or maintain normal diplomatic relations. In fact, the two nations experienced relatively cordial relations during much of the tenures of Iranian Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) and Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), and maintained normal diplomatic ties until January 2016 when a mob raided the Saudi diplomatic premises in Iran to protest the Saudi execution of a high-profile Shiite cleric. Although the recent Chinese-brokered diplomatic rapprochement does not end Saudi-Iranian rivalry, it has the potential to prevent direct, militarized disputes and help bring peace and stability to the current conflict and rivalry zones in the region, most notably in Yemen and Syria.
By mitigating security concerns and enabling the two countries to scale down their involvement in regional conflict zones, this new relationship may allow the two parties to focus on more pressing domestic priorities. Saudi Arabia may devote its energies more fully to its economic development vision and political reforms with less concern about aerial attacks on its vital oil and gas infrastructure. Iran will similarly be able to allocate more resources to dealing with its domestic political and economic challenges, confident that a regional military alliance between Israel and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf will not form against it.
In short, the recent diplomatic settlement between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not a game-changer leading to strategic realignments in the region. It should, however, not be prematurely dismissed as insignificant and ill-fated either. The two countries have demonstrated in the past to be capable of establishing a détente. There is nothing to suggest that they won’t be able to keep their rivalry within manageable limits and prevent its militarization this time as well.