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The Iran-Saudi Arabia Diplomatic Relations: What does it mean for the Middle East?

Friday has been a historic day in the world of Middle Eastern diplomacy when, in Beijing, diplomatic talks were hosted between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is important to note that because the talks were held in China they were bittersweet to their number 1 rival the United States, who although they welcomed the talks, couldn’t hide signs of jealousy. The I.R of Iran was represented by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary Ali Shamkhani while Saudi Arabia was represented by its national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban. The talks were headlined with the news that both countries agreed to reopen their respective embassies in Tehran and Riyadh within two months after severing ties in 2016. This diplomatic move comes after decades of what most experts called a cold war. This cold war started after the 1970 Revolution in Iran which installed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in power, overthrowing the westernized Shah. This revolution made Iran a perceived threat to the Arab world, especially the Saudis. The Iranians wanted to challenge the Saudi’s authority in the region, so they began exporting their revolution to other countries. The exporting of the revolution to mostly Shia populace who they perceived were oppressed in Arab countries. Consequently, in response the Saudi Arabian government started supporting the mostly Sunni governments (who sometimes were even labeled dictatorships) as well as militias against the armed organizations supported by Iran. This would later intensify after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, resulting in a series of civil wars that followed as a domino effect in the Arab world especially during the Arab Spring. The proxy war would have a more devastating effect on countries ravaged by civil war and economic crises because of groups aligned to the two powers, countries like Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq still face the brunt of it. Now with this major diplomatic move, all talk is getting direct to what it will mean to the region. Multiple officials and political leaders have been commenting about this event and what it could mean to their respective countries. We will be focusing on how it was viewed in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen and how the Saudi-Iranian Cold War affected them.


Saudi Arabia has overreached on Iran, Lebanon | The Japan Times

Lebanon has known the Saud-Iranian conflict, not in wars like the other countries we are about to discuss, but politically. The tiny country’s political scene has been divided into two camps ever since 2005 and the retreat of the Syrian Armed Forces who intervened in the country since the civil war. The two camps were: one, who supported the Syrian regime and ultimately Iran, the 8 March Alliance led by the notorious Shi’a armed group Hezbollah (a result of the exporting of the Revolution). The other camp was, anti-Syrian regime and ultimately against the Iranian leadership, the 14 March alliance led by the Future Movement founded by the assassinated prime minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni business tycoon who for long worked in Saudi Arabia and even held the nationality of that country, after his death his son Sa’ ad, a former prime minister (for more than once) having resigned in at the beginning of the October 19 Revolution in 2019, received the leadership of the movement he also holds a Saudi nationality and is an important businessman. These two camps have long rivaled for control over the country, or at the very least to have a more dominating influence. These political disputes have worsened due to corruption, and other elements like confessionalism have led to a disastrous, never before seen economic crisis in the country that began after the 2019 revolution.

The announcement of the restoration of diplomatic relations, was welcomed by Tehran's allies and ignored by Riyadh's friends. The Hezbollah leader, Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, was one of the first to react to the announcement of the upcoming exchange of ambassadors between Tehran and Riyadh. Hassan Nasrallah said that "the return of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a very welcome step, and will work in favor of the peoples of the region". He also affirmed the impact it will have on Lebanon « This important development could open up horizons throughout the region, as well as in Lebanon. » Other politicians aligned to Hezbollah have also expressed their favor for the accord, regarding it as a wave of stability that will impose itself in the region generally and the country specifically. On a governmental level, Caretaker Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib had nothing but positive remarks about Friday, focusing on the importance that this diplomatic move will have on stability in the region.


Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gestures Monday in a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Tehran. | IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER'S WEBSITE / SANA / VIA AFP-JIJI

Ever since 2011, Syria has been struck by a destructive civil war. The country quickly turned from stable to a breeding ground for all sorts of armed groups. From one side, Syrian president Bashar al Assad received military support from Russia and Iran to help him destroy the armed opposition, the two nations aren’t alone in their support, the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah joined in, first to defend Holy Shi’ite shrines, and later joined the full fight with other Shi’ite groups from Syria, Iraq and even Afghanistan and Pakistan. Other pro-Assad groups armed themselves as well, mainly Pan-Arab ones due to it being the dominant ideology, part of Ba’athism, in Syrian politics. Minorities like the Druze and the different Christian groups have also formed armed groups to defend themselves fearing the dominant Sunni identity of the Revolution. Speaking of the revolution, at first they were regrouped under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, they received military and financial support from both Turkey and Saudi Arabia, they were then divided into a great lot of rebel groups, who even fought each other repeatedly, some became their own noticeably powerful independent groups with a clear objective(s) while others were just here to fight without any clear objective. Similarly, others joined terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda who both also fought in the war. Finally, it is important that we do not forget the Kurds who did play a major role, specifically in fighting ISIS in the war. They had American military support as well as international volunteers who formed brigades to come and fight with them. It is not known how many groups are fighting with Syria but it is safe to assume that they near  hundreds if not more. The idea behind retelling the story of the conflict is to show how torn Syria has been, in a war that could possibly have been shorter and less destructive. However, a much greater devastation was caused by the involvement of major powers especially Saudi Arabia and Iran by financing and aiding loads and loads of armed groups. And as if Death by war wasn’t enough, economic crises, illegal migration, torture and executions and most recently natural catastrophes came as extra weight.

As for the Friday agreements, the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed the agreement reached between Saudi Arabia and Iran to resume diplomatic relations between the two countries with Chinese efforts, covering the same points as its Lebanese counterpart. Saudi Arabia and Iran's relations are likely to further influence the long-running conflict in the country. And after a decade of rupture, relations between Damascus and Riyadh may gradually return, as Saudi officials hint. 


Houthis attend a speech given onscreen by the group's leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, during a rally in Sanaa on August 19. [Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

Yemen has been a disaster since 2014 after the start of the war. The war started when the Houthis, a Shi’ite Zaydi group, rose up in armed demonstrations to topple the Saudi backed Sunni government successfully. Ever since 2015, the government has been exiled in none-other than the northern neighbor Saudi Arabia. Although the Houthis never really declared allegiance or an alliance to Iran, links between them have been suspected, and the idea of having a direct neighbor with possible links to your enemy and missiles capable of reaching your territory would obviously terrify the Kingdom. And so, an official military campaign has been declared called Operation Decisive Storm and then another one under the name of Operation Restoring Hope. The operations consisted mostly of heavy airstrikes. These airstrikes did not always reach their target and most times they hit civilian areas and even targets like school buses, which made the Saudis war criminals in international public opinion. The Yemenis were already suffering badly, and ultimately their country became the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. This comes after food insecurity and lack of access to health services, leading to dire consequences like famine and a cholera outbreak.

Before the planned reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Saudi Arabia had sought a permanent ceasefire and a way out of a years-long war against the Houthi movement. These talks are expected to hasten the process. Especially because resuming relations with Iran could reduce arms shipments to the Houthis and help end the war in Yemen. The Ansar Allah group (Houthis) implicitly welcomed the agreement. Its official spokesman, Muhammad Abdul Salam, said, "The region needs the return of normal relations between its countries, through which the Islamic nation can recover its lost security as a result of foreign interference. '' After the announcement of the Saudi-Iranian agreement, Washington was quick to welcome it. A statement by a spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House linked the agreement to efforts to end the Yemeni war, saying that the United States welcomes "in general any efforts that would end the war in Yemen." From its side, the Yemeni government in Saudi Arabia, in a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, expressed hope.  Worded with great caution, the statement read that it hoped that the agreement would constitute "a new phase of relations in the region, starting with Iran's cessation of interference in Yemen’s internal affairs, and that its agreement to this agreement would not be a result of internal conditions and international pressures." 


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