How Saudi-Iranian détente will (or won’t) affect defense in the region
BEIRUT — The newly announced resumption of diplomatic relations between historic rivals the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran has prompted no shortage of speculation about the quickly changing security landscape in the region.
But experts told Breaking Defense that while the agreement could deflate some long-held tensions between Tehran and its rivals in the region, of which KSA is the largest, and could signal interlocutor China’s rise in the Middle East, for now the best advice is: Wait and see.
“[The] devil lies in the details,” said Bilal Saab, Senior Fellow and Director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute. “There are far too many fault lines that are of a regional nature. And issues between the Saudis and the Iranians are too deep, historical and complex for a single country like China, which has very little experience in the region, to address.”
Not much is known about the details of the Saudi-Iranian deal announced last week, but essentially, after mediation by the Chinese, the two rivals have agreed to re-establish their diplomatic relationship after a seven-year break and to abide by a “security cooperation agreement.”
Speaking the day the deal was announced, White House spokesperson John Kirby said the Biden administration “welcomed” it, but indicated some suspicion about its durability.
“If it can be sustained, regardless of what the impetus was or who sat down at the table … we welcome that,” Kirby said.
It’s a cautionary approach shared by Saudi geopolitical analyst and president of the Saudi Elite Group Mohammed AlHamad.
“Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its militias are the biggest threat to the region and that won’t stop now, as I don’t think the Revolutionary Guard will agree with the Saudi agreements with Iranian foreign policy officials, so we will remain on high alert and be completely clear-eyed about this possibility,” AlHamad said.
Kristian Alexander, senior fellow and head of the Strategic Affairs Department at Trends Research & Advisory, an independent think tank in Abu Dhabi, acknowledged the possibility for some de-escalation.
“This deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia could potentially change the threat perception of Iran in the region,” Alexander told Breaking Defense. “If the two countries can come to an agreement on issues such as nuclear weapons and support for non-state actors, it could lead to a reduction in tensions and a more stable regional security environment. However, it is important to note that other countries in the region may still view Iran as a threat, and it may take time for perceptions to change.”
It will especially matter, he said, whether Iran alters its support for proxy groups in the region like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, the latter of which has allegedly engaged in direct attacks on Gulf nations. Iran also relies heavily on unmanned systems, and always highlights in the media production and “successful testing” of drones and unmanned surface vessels that pose potential asymmetric threats to the navigation in the Arabian Gulf and in the Strait of Hurmuz.
“We will have to see how other countries in the region will react to this. Most, if not all, welcome this agreement but it will take time to see what actual steps and concrete measures (along with a visible change in behavior) will come from this,” he added.
AlHamad said, “If Iran follows through on the agreement, we may be able to achieve peace in Yemen and free the Arab world from the threat of Iranian terrorist militias.”
A Boon For Beijing?
Despite the White House’s efforts to downplay China’s role in the diplomatic breakthrough, in the joint statement Iran, Saudi Arabia and China credited Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “noble initiative” for closing the deal, prompting no small amount of hand-wringing among observers that Beijing was supplanting the US as the most significant foreign power in the region.
“Symbolically, this is masterful by the Chinese,” MEI’s Saab said. “The image of adversaries shaking hands, sitting on the right side and the left side of the Americans and brokering peace agreements, normalization agreements, or even just a space to talk is something that is typically associated with the Americans.”
He said that Gulf countries will continue to try to balance relations between Washington and Beijing, but in terms of security, nothing changes the fact that the number one security guarantor of these countries remains the US. “I don’t see any development where that formula is dramatically overhauled,” he concluded.
Alexander said, “In the past, China’s influence in the Middle East was largely economic, whereas the United States’ influence has been primarily military and political. China has invested heavily in the region’s infrastructure, particularly in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, and has become a major trading partner of many Middle Eastern nations. The United States, on the other hand, has to some extent focused on securing its strategic interests in the region through military interventions and alliances.”
And though the Saudi-Iran deal could signal a win for China’s relative soft power approach, Alexander too said that it “does not mean that China will replace the US in becoming the new regional security provider.”
And as far as providing security, all three experts were doubtful that Gulf nations would become customers for Iranian defense articles any time soon — though they differed on how far off that could be. For AlHamad, there was no question.
“This is nonsense. That will never happen. The entire region’s equipment is going to face the Iranian threat someday,” he said.