Will Saudi-Iran accord trigger a domino effect and stabilize Middle East?

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Nicosia: Last Thursday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, held in Beijing their first meeting in seven years and formalized the agreement to restore diplomatic relations and bury the hatchet between their countries.

They discussed the appointment of ambassadors, a visit by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Riyadh, the issuing of visas to each other’s citizens and the resumption of flights between the two countries.

The Chinese-brokered landmark accord between two countries that were bitter rivals for years may have a domino effect on other Middle East countries like Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, where the two countries supported opposing sides, and could play a big role in stabilizing the region.

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Furthermore, it is indicative of China’s new role as a diplomatic and strategic player in the Middle East and causes uneasiness to Washington, which sees Beijing’s economic and soft power increasing and its own influence diminishing in this strategic region of the world.

It looks like the bloody war in Yemen, where the Iranians backed the rebel Houthis and Saudi Arabia the internationally recognized government, will come to an end. The war in Yemen has claimed the lives of more than 233,000 people, while about five million people are at risk of famine and a cholera outbreak has affected over one million people.

Last year, a ceasefire was brokered by the United Nations, which was largely observed by the two sides. Now, following the accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran, under which the two countries agreed to stop their involvement in the war, the ceasefire is expected to become permanent.

Moreover, the Saudi government expects that it will no longer have to worry about Houthi missile and drone attacks against its oil installations and will not have to spend additional billions of dollars on sophisticated air defence systems.

The agreement represents a major success for internationally isolated Iran as it has managed to mend relations with Saudi Arabia, one of its two main enemies in the Middle East (the other enemy is Israel) and what is more this was achieved without Tehran’s prior deal on its nuclear program, which was generally believed to be a prerequisite for any improvement of relations with Riyadh.

Hussein Ibish, of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, points out that the accord “for Iran represents a successful effort of trying to push back against regional isolation without major changes to its policies, which adversaries like Saudi Arabia had previously been demanding.”

As regards Syria, for many years Saudi Arabia had been actively supporting insurgents trying to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime, while Iran sent thousands of troops to prevent its collapse. Currently, pro-Iranian militias continue to control several Syrian provinces.

However, due to the military support given by Russia to Damascus, it became apparent to Riyadh that the Assad regime will stay in power. So, the Saudis changed their policy on Syria. They discontinued assistance to the insurgents and now they are talking about Syria’s return to the Arab League.

For many years now, the pro-Iranian armed group Hezbollah has been a formidable force in Lebanon that exercises a big influence in the military and political affairs of the country. It has gradually become a hybrid terrorist organisation that occasionally fights Israel, while it provides social welfare to thousands of citizens who suffer due to the unprecedented economic crisis facing the country.

Lebanese politics have been broadly split for years between Hezbollah and a pro-Saudi coalition.

More many months now, Lebanon is facing an economic meltdown, without a president or a fully empowered cabinet, while the opposing sides fail to reach an agreement almost on all burning issues facing the country.

The restoration of relations between Riyadh and Tehran has sparked some hope that this could lead to an end to government paralysis. Nabih Berri, the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, recently described the accord achieved in Beijing as “historic” and said the “positive reading of the news should also prompt Lebanon’s politicians to quickly elect a president.”

With regard to Iraq, following the US-led invasion of 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, various militias with ties with Tehran joined the reconstituted Iraqi Army. After the advance of the Islamic state into northern Iraq in 2014, Iran provided technical advisers to the Iraqi government, troops to fight ISIL and weapons to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, sparking Saudi alarm.

In 2020 there was a limited thaw in relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia and the two countries reopened a crossing between them. Now with the Chinese brokered accord, relations between Tehran, Riyadh, and Baghdad are expected to improve even more.

Clearly, Israel is the country that is most unhappy with the restoration of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as it sees its hopes of establishing diplomatic relations with Riyadh and even forming a coalition against Iran vanish into thin air.

The threat of a possible Iranian attack against Saudi Arabia has now receded and there is no more a powerful incentive for Riyadh to think about improving relations with the Jewish state.

Another country that is not thrilled about the Chinese-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is the United States, which sees its general plans for the Middle East as failing. A State Department spokesman, commenting on the Riyadh- Tehran accord, said: “If this dialogue leads to concrete action by Iran to curb its destabilizing activities in the region, including the proliferation of dangerous weapons, then of course, we would welcome that.”

Furthermore, the US is not happy about China’s growing influence in the Middle East, while Washington’s influence diminishes. It realizes that it is now unlikely to achieve a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, while Iran forges ahead with enriching uranium to nuclear weapons grade, and instead of facing increased international isolation, it is improving its relations with a formerly implacable rival.

(Except for the headline, the story has not been edited by Siasat staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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( With inputs from )

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