Photo: Reuters

The Yemeni File is the Decisive Test for the Saudi-Iranian Rapprochement


Thu, 16-03-2023 01:03 PM, Aden

"Welcoming the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement by Southerners, especially on the part of STC, doesn’t mean that they accept their exclusion from any incoming understandings about the South Yemen file."

Farida Ahmed (South24)

Seven years after the severance of relationships between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two countries announced that they reached an agreement including the restoration of their diplomatic relationships, the resumption of dialogue and reopening the two embassies within two months. The sudden declaration from the Chinese capital Beijing stirred different responses. Some welcomed it while others have been cautious and doubtful towards the outcome of this big political transformation and how it will impact regional and international balances in the Middle East. For the United States, the occurrence of such an agreement was possible but it didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. We have to take into consideration the decline of the relationships between Riyadh and Washington for more than two years. This began with the US President Joe Biden pledge to transform Saudi Arabia into a “pariah state” due to its behavior in the Yemen war and its role in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This was followed by a Saudi maneuver to put pressure on Washington by reducing oil production based on an "OPEC Plus" recommendation last October. This cost the US a lot while achieving massive energy profits for Russia, especially during its war against Ukraine. 

The major diplomatic breakthrough achieved by China in making Saudi-Iranian rapprochement has disturbed the US and Israel to a larger degree. The latter has anticipated to sign a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia similar to its agreements with UAE, Bahrain and Morocco which basically aimed at reducing Iran's influence in the region and its nuclear program. Meanwhile, former Israeli Prime Minister, "Naftali Bennett", criticized Netanyahu due to the Saudi Iranian agreement. He said: “The restoration of relations between the Saudis and Iran is a serious and dangerous development for Israel that represents an Iranian diplomatic victory. This is a resounding failure of the Netanyahu government and is the result of a combination of diplomatic neglect and general weakness”. Saudi Arabia obviously has sought for security guarantees and concessions from the US if Washington wants it to normalize relationships with Israel. However, the US has not achieved the minimum Saudi demands. This pushed the latter to accelerate signing the agreement with Iran. This was clear through the security dimension of the agreement. The security parties signing on it included Saudi National Security Adviser Musaad Bin Mohammed Al Aiban and the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani. This probably serves as a message to Washington that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have other security cooperation alternatives in the region.

The latest deal has apparently revived the Joint Security Cooperation Agreement which was signed between Riyadh and Tehran in 2001. It included counterterrorism, combating drugs and money laundering, tracking crime, communications, holding security meetings, and opening channels between the two countries to monitor everything related to security. However, the agreement didn’t include the level of military cooperation with Iran as Saudi Arabia was not ready to sacrifice its military cooperation with the US in return for unguaranteed cooperation with Iran due to the latter's unreliability. However, the incoming agreements between the two countries are expected to develop to more bolder measures including opening the space for a joint military cooperation, especially in the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and the Arabian Gulf. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that Saudi Arabia abandons its military and security cooperation with the US which has been extended since the 1980s. But the most important question is whether this kind of rapprochement is a strategic one or an interim tactical deal, especially that Iran’s revolutionary institution has not blessed it. This would put Tehran in the face of a real test to determine if the Iranian government owns it’s decision-making.

Actually, Tehran needs such an agreement as much as Riyadh due to its deteriorating economic conditions and the extended popular uprising which has reached higher levels in Iran. This constitutes a big threat for the Iranian regime as well as straining Tehran’s foreign policy in the region in more than one file. Additionally, Tehran has been under an international blockade because of its nuclear program. According to the Twitter page Iran Arabic, one of the most important articles of the Saudi-Iranian agreement included “halting Saudi support to Jaish ul-Adl, “Khalq Organization”, the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz and “Iran International” TV channel. Moreover, the agreement included lifting the restrictions imposed on the Saudi Shiites and allowing them to visit Iran. Yemen has a special status in this agreement. The Saudi-Iranian agreement may reduce the internal tension in Iran which would have its impact on the whole region including Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Accordingly, a dialogue with Damascus may happen according to Saudi Foreign Minister "Faisal Bin Farhan". He said that there are Arab efforts to prepare for an inevitable dialogue with Damascus in consultation with the international community. However, it is not necessary that the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement includes understandings about all these files. Some files may have bigger priority and of great importance for both parties. This may serve as an implicit beginning to show goodwill towards this agreement, foremost of which is the Yemeni file. 

Understandings about Yemen

The Yemeni parties blessed the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement through successive statements. The Houthi official spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam said that: ”Restoring normal relationships between the countries of the region is needed to enable the Islamic nation to regain its lost security due to the foreign interference”. STC’s spokesperson Ali Al-Kathiri confirmed that STC President Aidrous Al-Zubaidi previously called on to resume the relationships and the dialogue between the two states. Several Southerners considered this welcoming position less sober than the Yemeni government’s cautious stance towards the Saudi-Iranian agreement. The Yemeni government has adopted a more reticent approach. It said that its cautious treatment with the Iranian regime will continue until we see a real change in its behavior and disruptive policies in our countries and the region”. Furthermore, the visit by UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg and his meetings with Iran’s Foreign Minister Hussein Abdullahian and a number of senior Iranian officials to discuss the latest developments in Yemen enhance the impact of this rapprochement to end the conflict in a sustainable way in order to strengthen security in the region according the envoy.

It is important to say that the latest rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran will necessarily impact the path of understandings related to the Yemeni file, especially the Saudi-Houthi talks that were resumed months ago to prolong the truce in Yemen after it expired in October 2022. Subsequently, the Iranian permanent mission to the UN declared that "the resumption of political relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia will accelerate the achievement of a cease-fire in Yemen, the start of a dialogue with the Yemeni people, and the formation of a comprehensive national government in this country." This is apparently a pivotal indicator to find solutions towards peace in Yemen. This file is obviously the most sensitive and decisive one to measure the steadfastness of the recent Iranian-Saudi agreement. It seems that Riyadh is insistent on closing the Yemen war file at any cost to devote itself to carry out “Vision 2030” in line with the Silk Road Project. The Chinese government is also keen to implement its project in a more stable environment. 

It is remarkable that the escalation in Yemen has been largely reduced over the past months as the Houthi attacks towards Saudi Arabia have ceased. However, Iran has not stopped smuggling weapons to Yemen to prove its seriousness following rounds of earlier negotiations regarding Yemen in Baghdad, Muscat and the Dead Sea in Jordan. The deal would possibly enable Tehran to impose its will on the Houthis regarding peace in Yemen as a result of its understandings with Saudi Arabia. This has been sought by Iran over the past two years through the Houthis demands to make peace negotiations between the Houthis and Saudis directly. This is basically an Iranian demand by which Tehran wanted to push Saudi Arabia to an understanding approach with it, whether directly or through the Houthis.

At the heart of that, the Houthi condition accelerated the understanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Riyadh felt that pacification in Yemen among the Yemeni parties according to the Houthi-Iranian concept won’t be attainable via international sponsorship but through Iran’s approval on this settlement. Consequently, they provided some benefits for Iran to accept the Houthi instructions towards accepting any settlement. However, Saudi Arabia will find it difficult to convince all components of the Yemeni legitimacy to reach a deal with the Houthis based on its understanding with Iran if such an agreement does not include some interests for the local parties, especially Southerners. The latter believe that they are excluded from direct participation in the understanding. This is because Northern parties insist on delaying discussing the Southern issue till after the political settlement. Additionally, Saudi Arabia needs to impose an agreement between the “legitimate government” and the Houthis which is compatible with its understandings with Iran.

It is not unlikely that Saudi Arabia will attempt to convince the legitimate government’s components, especially the Northern ones to reach an agreement with the Houthis. This is because the Northern parties don’t control reliable geography in the face of the Houthis. Their survival completely depends politically and militarily on Saudi financial support. This would push Riyadh to attempt to impose a bigger impact on the Southern components and their controlled areas depending on some Northern parties which have military nature. This includes PLC Chairman Rashad Al-Alimi and “Tariq Saleh”. This would accordingly push towards a new wave of tension in South Yemen’s areas, especially in case of reaching a political settlement with the Houthis that don’t consider these sensitivities. This may go beyond a struggle between legitimacy and the coup, to a regional struggle between North and South. 

It is important to say that the easiest way to avoid this is that Saudi Arabia needs to reach prior understandings with Southerners. This road will take a longer time. Welcoming the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement by Southerners, especially on the part of STC, doesn’t mean they accept their exclusion from any incoming understandings about the South Yemen’s file. The accelerated diplomatic and political developments in the region will likely push Saudi Arabia to take the shorter and harder road for itself and Southerners. This road includes imposing a de-facto settlement with the Houthis and passing it across all the Yemeni parties in accordance with the results of the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, especially if the settlement includes Houthi measures that provide guarantees for the Kingdom’s security.

Farida Ahmed 

Executive Director of South24 Center for News and Studies, researcher and journalist in political affairs.

South YemenSaudi Iranian AgreementYemenSaudi ArabiaIranHouthisPLCSTC