Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations and reopen embassies after seven years of tensions. This major diplomatic breakthrough was negotiated after the talk between Iran and Saudi Arabia which was hosted by China.
Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to resume diplomatic ties that have been severed for years, following Beijing-hosted talks.
Why Saudi Arabia and Iran are bitter rivals?
- Struggle for regional dominance —
- Saudi Arabia and Iran – two powerful neighbours – are locked in a fierce struggle for regional dominance.
- Historically Saudi Arabia, a monarchy and home to the birthplace of Islam, saw itself as the leader of the Muslim world.
- However, this was challenged in 1979 by the Islamic revolution in Iran.
- The revolution created a new type of state in the region – a kind of revolutionary theocracy – that had an explicit goal of exporting this model beyond its own borders.
- Religious differences — The decades-old feud between them is exacerbated by religious differences. They each follow one of the two main branches of Islam – Iran is largely Shia Muslim, while Saudi Arabia sees itself as the leading Sunni Muslim power.
- Series of events further increased tension —
- 2011 – Arab Spring —
- The Arab Spring saw protest movements against the status quo across the Middle East.
- Saudi Arabia accused Iran of inciting protests in Bahrain against the royal family.
- 2011 – Syrian war —
- Shia-ruled Iran backed President Bashar al-Assad and provided him with military forces and money to battle Sunni rebels.
- Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia backed the rebel groups.
- 2015 – War in Yemen —
- When the civil war in Yemen began in 2015, Saudi Arabia backed its internationally recognised government and targeted Houthi rebel strongholds. The Houthis are aligned with Iran.
- 2015 – Mecca stampede —
- A stampede in Mecca during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in 2015 further inflamed tensions.
- Iran accused the Saudi government of mismanaging the most important event in the Muslim calendar.
- 2016 – Saudi Arabia cuts ties —
- After the stampede in Mecca, Saudi Arabia executed prominent Shia leader Nimr al-Nimr, a critic of the Saudi government.
- Protesters in Tehran stormed the Saudi embassy. Riyadh then cut ties with Tehran.
- 2017 – Qatar blockade —
- Another regional rupture took place in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia and its allies (United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt) imposed a blockade on Qatar.
- They said Qatar was too close to Iran and supported “terrorism”.
- 2019 – Attacks on Saudi targets —
- Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for a series of attacks on targets in the kingdom, including one that struck the heart of the country’s oil industry, temporarily halving the kingdom’s crude production.
- 2020 – Qassem Soleimani killed —
- When the Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad, official Saudi media celebrated the attack.
What are the key highlights of the agreement?
- The two countries agreed on a meeting between their top diplomats to implement the restoration of ties and organise the logistics of exchanging ambassadors.
- The two countries plan to reopen their respective embassies in Tehran and Riyadh within two months.
- Both the countries also agreed to activate a 2001 security cooperation agreement, as well as a general economy, trade and investment agreement signed in 1998.
- They also confirmed their “respect for the sovereignty of states and non-interference in their internal affairs”.
Significance of this agreement –
- Peace and stability in the middle east —
- Iran and Saudi Arabia had been engaged in many proxy wars in the region.
- Against this backdrop, the recent agreement would help end the war in Yemen and de-escalate tensions in the Middle East region.
- Highlights Beijing’s growing role —
- China hosted the talks that led to the breakthrough, highlighting Beijing’s growing role as a global economic and political power, and counterbalance to Washington — particularly in the Middle East.
- So far, middle east had been a region that was long shaped by the military and diplomatic involvement of the United States.
- For the United States — For the United States, the agreement signals that it cannot take for granted the pre-eminent influence it once wielded in Saudi Arabia.
- For India —
- So far, India had maintained a good relationship with both the countries.
- However, due to the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, India had to walk on a diplomatic tight rope.
- Tension between the two major countries in the region often endangered India’s interests.
- Hence, this agreement would provide much needed space for India to manoeuvre.