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Politics

Iranian-Saudi Ties Improved – But Not Yet Normalized

January 16, 2024
Faramarz Davar
3 min read
Iran's politicians who once hailed the resumption of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia last year as a "government success" are now more skeptical
Iran's politicians who once hailed the resumption of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia last year as a "government success" are now more skeptical
Despite Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's call for Islamic countries to limit their ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia has taken a significant step toward normalizing relations with the Jewish state
Despite Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's call for Islamic countries to limit their ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia has taken a significant step toward normalizing relations with the Jewish state
Saudi Arabia not only supported China in the statement on the UAE's dispute with Iran, but also provided advice on the nuclear issue, urging cooperation with the United Nations
Saudi Arabia not only supported China in the statement on the UAE's dispute with Iran, but also provided advice on the nuclear issue, urging cooperation with the United Nations
Attacks by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels on commercial ships in the Red Sea have escalated tensions
Attacks by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels on commercial ships in the Red Sea have escalated tensions

Iran's politicians who once hailed the resumption of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia last year as a "government success" are now more skeptical. 

This shift in perspective comes in the wake of the forced removal of Qassem Soleimani's statues from a stadium and the resolute stance of one of the most influential countries in the Islamic world toward establishing relations with Israel.

Despite Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's call for Islamic countries to limit their ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia has taken a significant step toward normalizing relations with the Jewish state.

After the Hamas attack on Israel in October, Iranian officials claimed it had disrupted plans to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. 

President Ebrahim Raisi's visit to Saudi Arabia for an emergency meeting yielded limited results, with his proposals being left out of the final statement. 

While Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran reopened their embassies, the situation remains strained. 

The Saudi embassy in Tehran, set on fire by Basij students in 2016, is currently unusable, and the Saudi diplomats are housed in a hotel.

Differences dating back to December 2015 have not been resolved and have, if anything, deepened. 

Attacks by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels on commercial ships in the Red Sea have escalated tensions.

Khamenei's warnings that Tehran’s proxies in the region were ready to escalate the Gaza conflict add another layer to the complex situation. 

The Houthis, who control swathes of Yemen, claim to be targeting vessels to show their support for the Iran-backed Hamas in its conflict against Israel.

Previous attacks by the Yemeni rebels have targeted Saudi oil facilities, disrupting production. 

Underlying disputes between Tehran and Riyadh persist.

In June last year, the Saudi foreign minister asked to switch the location of his joint press conference with his Iranian counterpart in Tehran because the room featured a photo of late Iranian general Qassem Suleimani on the wall.

And in October, a football match between Iranian and Saudi teams was called off due to the presence of Suleimani’s statue at the entrance to the pitch.

The Islamic Republic lacks a justification for the low level of its legitimacy, both domestically and internationally, in particular since the bloody repression of the 2022 protests. 

The recent actions of Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdullahian, particularly in the cancellation of the football match in Isfahan and his contact with his Saudi counterpart, highlight the unprofessionalism prevailing among Iranian officials. 

Amir-Abdollahian's claim of an agreement with Faisal bin Farhan to play the match, unconfirmed by the Saudi foreign minister, indicates a lack of awareness of FIFA and Asian Football Confederation regulations. 

It also suggests an authoritarian mindset where the authorities believe that everything depends solely on their will.

While Saudi Arabia has consistently supported the United Arab Emirates' claims on the disputed islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb, a notable instance occurred during the Chinese president's visit to Saudi Arabia. 

Saudi Arabia not only supported China in the statement on the UAE's dispute with Iran, but also provided advice on the nuclear issue, urging cooperation with the United Nations.

Throughout these instances, Saudi Arabia maintained a diplomatic approach without accusing the Islamic Republic, yet it successfully compelled Tehran to meet its demands, bypassing the previous diplomatic tensions.

Symbolically, Saudi Arabia prevented Iranian flights transporting Umrah pilgrims, with significant commercial benefits for both nations, due to the perceived poor quality of Iranian planes. 

Allowing Iranian aircraft in Saudi airspace would require a political agreement between Tehran and Riyadh.

A year after establishing relations, there is no sign of a high-quality relationship emerging. 

The Islamic Republic’s support for Russia's military aggression against Ukraine, regional destabilization through proxy groups and internal repression have led to unprecedented isolation. 

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