The True Limits Of The Saudi-Iranian Deal Begin In Tehran
Iran and Saudi Arabia have announced they will restore diplomatic relations. The news may have proved startling — especially China's role — but is unlikely to dispel long-standing distrust between two regional rivals.
Observers have reacted to the planned restoration of diplomatic ties between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Saudi monarchy, with Chinese mediation, as a warning to the United States on its declining position in the Middle East — and China's arrival as a regional powerbroker.
The announcement even provoked accusations between government and opposition in Israel, which was likely hoping to normalize ties with Saudi Arabia in the framework of the Abraham Accords.
The U.S. website Axios recently cited an unnamed Israel official as blaming U.S. weakness under the current Democratic administration for this development in Middle East. While the United States remains Israel's chief ally, there is an inevitable clash of perspectives between the right-wing government in Tel Aviv and Washington.
Yet on Iran's regional threat, both sides insist they're on the same page.
Opponents of Israel's current Benjamin Netanyahu government have even blamed its divisive judicial reforms for distracting the country from regional affairs at a sensitive time. But the Israeli official cited in Axios observed that developments behind the scenes, including U.S.-Israeli collaborations, were more important than surface events.
In Iran, the breakthrough was presented by some as a victory against the West's bid to isolate the regime, which has deftly worked itself into a corner with its contested nuclear activities, alignment with Russia in Ukraine, and harsh repression of protesters in recent months. The conservative Kayhan newspaper, unrelated to Kayhan-London, called the deal a "working blow against America" and Israel.
A military affairs adviser to Iran's supreme leader, Yahya Rahim-Safavi, has called it a "political earthquake, heralding the end" of U.S. and Israeli "hegemony" in the Middle East. He said it vindicates the regime's Look East policy or alignment with China and Russia, and would give it added "geopolitical weight."
A "victory" against the West
Yet as the Saudis have stated, it needn't rule out any plans it may have had to forge similar ties with Israel. In spite of differences and even frosty relations with the Biden administration, Saudi Arabia remains more, not less, inclined toward the Western world. It has little in common in that sense with the Islamic Republic and its revolutionary agenda.
Prague-based broadcaster Radio Farda has observed that the resumption of ties would benefit the kingdom by downgrading its tensions with Iran to the diplomatic level, diluting the exhausting "proxy war" in Yemen and elsewhere, and strengthening the kingdom's hand in any talks with Israel or the United States.
It seems as if for both sides, the resumption of ties provides a breather.
Limited benefits for Tehran
But its benefits for Tehran may prove more limited, given its difficult position overall. Tehran commentator Hamid Abutalebi, a former adviser to the last Iranian president, the moderate Hasan Rohani, has said that "keeping" a deal was more important than signing one. Iran and Saudi Arabia already had a security pact in 2001, he said, which was spoiled by "extremists and radicals."
Israeli officials have sought not to show undue concern.
Ties were broken off in 2016 when an angry crowd stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The states ceased to have cordial ties in any case in 1979, when Iran ceased to be a monarchy, and regional distrust of Iran's disruptive agenda is pervasive and keen. Abutalebi said the deal would be better if it could feed hopes of greater moderation in policies and possibly even tentative moves to mend ties with the West.
That is highly unlikely, which may be why Israeli officials have sought not to show undue concern. The deal may have benefits for Saudi Arabia and China, as two states operating "normally" in the international sphere, but can hardly compensate for Iran's degraded international, diplomatic and economic position, and disastrous alignment with a war-mongering Russia.
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