For several years, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been the main enemies in the region. Firm Shia-Islam representatives and Sunni-Islam kingdom, both influential players from political, security, and economic perspectives, have been causing instability and have participated against each other in several turmoil and conflicts.
The tensions started mainly after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, one of the most incredible milestones in the region’s modern history. Soon after the revolution, Iran accused Saudi Arabia of solid connections with the USA and of playing the role of a secret agent. During the Ahmadinejad era, there was a significant improvement in their relations. Still, tensions have intensified since 2011, when Iran started supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and Saudi Arabia Syrian rebels. In 2016, the embassies of both countries were closed after several attacks on both sides.
Syria and Iran – new oil trade agreements
The last 15 years have been full of expected and unexpected conflicts, protests, and tension, and the year 2023 is not behind. It has been a very turbulent year in the Middle East so far. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria have become new allies and partners.
As already mentioned, Iran has always been in favour of Bashar al-Asad. As a powerful player in the region, Iran supported Syria by providing fuel or credit lines, but more importantly, it has supported Syria in the fight against ISIS, sending military troops and equipment to the country; however, without any further visits from the ministries or president.
3rd of May, 2023, has changed that. Syrian President Raisi visited the Syrian president in Damascus after ten years after the last presidential visit of former Iranian president Ahmadinejad.
The primary purpose of this visit was to finalize and sign essential agreements about cooperation on oil and other sectors, such as telecommunication or logistic infrastructures. However, from a geopolitical perspective, Iran is also strengthening its position by spreading its influence in currently destroyed Syria. The Iranian government has planned to establish a railway connection from Iran through Syria, Iraq, and the seashore.
From the security point of view, it can also be a way of positioning Iran against Israel, which has been in very adverse relations with Iran and Syria, targeting Hezbollah units in Syria, which might be at risk of a new open conflict between those countries. Iran has been officially supporting Hezbollah for years. Therefore, it may be considered a way how to push Israel back.
Israel has openly and publicly stressed its interest in stopping Iranian influence and their preparedness to fight.
Arab League and Saudi Arabia as new partners
Of course, this new official support for Al-Asad has raised a question of the stability in the region. Many Western countries are not happy with seeing this support. They have perceived A-Asad’s behaviour during the conflict as illegitimate and against human rights.
Moreover, Iran has decided to reopen its embassy in Syria again, showing its willingness to extend its diplomatic relations. However, what surprised many international actors, was the re-establishment of Saudi Arabia and Iran relations. Syrian has a connecting role. Iran and Saudi Arabia have reopened communication channels and negotiations about future cooperation.
In Beijing, in March 2023, China provided a safe space for starting these discussions. After years of volatile relations full of hybrid warfare attacks and tensions spreading across the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran have concluded to reopen their embassies also in their countries during May 2023.
It has brought several questions not only among Iranian and Saudis. Even though UAE and Yemen support this reopening of cooperation, it is unclear how the conflict separating these two actors will continue and whether Iran or Saudi Arabia might change their position. However, recently, Saudi Arabia claimed that it is one of their main concerns to end the Yemen war. Moreover, Iran and Saudi Arabia have reactivated agreements from 2001, declaring cooperation in security and terrorist manners.
Syria has also entered the discussion about its re-integration into the Arab League, which would help the state regain its reputation and position among Arab states. Syria was expelled 12 years ago due to Asad’s reaction during protests. It is pretty exciting and warning that Asad’s behaviour and violent decision during the protests and the war have been put aside. It is a question of whether this would bring stability to the region or increase the tensions between Israel and Arab countries.
However, one question or, instead, a condition was raised during the negotiations. Syria, destroyed by the war, has had an enormous problem with drug smuggling. A renewed drug called Captagon has spread across the region very fast. But, Syria has not been doing any actions to stop it, as it has been proven that Syria as a state has been participating in it, gaining new economic resources.
The drug has spread mainly to Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia and targeted those groups suffering from a dire economic situation and high unemployment rate. Arab League, which has been trying to control it, likely stepped towards reactivating Syrian membership to convince them or force them to intervene in this manner. Furthermore, Arab League promised Syria a financial injection to supplement those resources.
The USA, China, and Russia – how are they standing now?
From the other point of view, we might see the USA losing its strong position in the Middle East, as China and Russia supported these changes and provided free space for talks and negotiations. We can see a complete change in security discourse and the change of powers in the Middle East. Furthermore, the USA has had a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia based on mutual respect, military protection, and oil supply, and with Israel as a non-NATO partner, again based on military and security cooperation. It needs to be clarified how Saudi’s reconnection to Syria and Iran will transform it.
China and Russia, with their economic interest, have shown a willingness to bring stability to the region, but at what costs or rewards for those states? Also, re-establishing Asad’s regime and its renewed legitimacy might cause many refugees to fly from Syria because the administration and its violence will not have the chance to return.
One important factor must be noticed while analyzing the Iranian step toward reconnection with Saudi Arabia. Iranian nuclear program has been questioned for years, but with its enrichment of 83%, it has increased Israeli and the USA connection to detect any suspicious activities related to it. Also, the Nuclear deal as we know it is no longer in place and valid, and therefore, Iran, which has been under oppression and sanction, maybe eliminating enemies by making them their partners, as Saudi Arabia has also been against this program.
What will be next? Are we seeing new world order in the Middle East?
Recent developments in the Middle East have brought the attention of the whole world, not only in disputes about al Asad’s legitimacy in Syria but also regarding its role in repositioning Iran and Saudi Arabia. We can see ways to stop or end years of ongoing conflicts in Yemen, for instance, and maybe, through Saudi Arabia, a new opening for Iran to other states, not only in the region.
Moreover, China and Russia have strengthened their positions by offering a safe space for negotiations and supporting a particular partnership’s beginning.
It will be interesting to monitor reactions from the Western countries, especially the USA, and future talks between this global actor and Israel, which has expressed strongly negative impressions about the current updates.
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Written by Tereza Kirsch