Verba volant, acta manent

(To Renato Scarfi)

The recent announcement of the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran took international analysts a bit by surprise, also because the reopening of the respective diplomatic representations was favored by the mediation of China, a country so far not particularly familiar with Middle Eastern political issues.

It is understandable, therefore, how the announcement in question did not fail to create a certain sensation, despite the negotiation lasted about two years, precisely because of the harsh contrast that characterized the story of the two protagonists, whose diplomatic relations had been interrupted in 2016, following the violent invasion of the Saudi embassy in Tehran by a group of protesters, in response to the execution in Saudi Arabia of the local Shia leader, Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr.

The origins of friction

And right here are the roots of the bitter confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites, which has been going on for centuries now. The Muslim world, in fact, was a monolithic whole only in the period in which it was led by Mohammed since, upon his death, it split into numerous currents, of which the main ones are, in fact, Sunnis and Shiites. The predominantly political diatribe therefore has its roots in 632 AD, the year of Mohammed's death, when the struggles began for the definition of the rules to be followed for the appointment of his successor (caliph), a position both political and religious.

The Sunnis (Ahl al-sunna wa l-jama'a, "the people of tradition and consensus") supported Abu Bakr, a friend of the Prophet and father of his wife Aisha. They believed that the successor should be chosen by the community among the faithful known for their virtues. The name derives from the sunna (the habitual behavior of the Prophet), of which the only true followers profess themselves. The Shiites (Shi'atu Ali "Alì's party") believed, however, that the legitimate successor should be identified only among Muhammad's relatives and that the choice should fall on Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, and on his direct descendants of him.

Abu Bakr's supporters prevailed, although Ali briefly ruled as the fourth caliph. The split within Islam was consolidated when Hussein, son of Ali, was killed in 680 in Karbala (in present-day Iraq).

From that initial, purely political division, the divisions between Sunnis and Shiites have further deepened and, over time, have also become religious differences, with different nuances regarding the interpretations of Islam.

The protagonists of the agreement

Those historic divisions have to date seen Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shia) ruthlessly contending for areas of geopolitical influence in an attempt to achieve regional supremacy. Distant, often opposing political positions which have led some analysts to speculate enthusiastically on the possible immediate returns of the agreement signed on March 10 with Chinese mediation.

Are these authentic prospects or just improbable auspices? Even if the return to dialectics is always good news, many doubts still remain about its real medium-long term stability. The issues between the Saudis and Iranians appear too deep, historical and complex to think they can be quickly settled with a signature on a piece of paper.

The attitude shown by Tehran, which some time ago suspended the negotiations, as if there was uncertainty about proceeding, only to resume them with greater vigor, contributes to fueling the doubts about the "sustainability" of the agreement.

Was it the renewed conviction of the path to take or was it the serious internal Iranian situation that provided the impetus to conclude the negotiations? Some observers believe that the second hypothesis is more probable, i.e. the need to "catch your breath", an international political make-up operation to try to make people forget, with a striking diplomatic goal, the harsh repression underway and the hangings of students unarmed demonstrating for a freer country.

But the doubts don't stop there. In fact, many are wondering what position some more extremist Iranian sectors will take, such as for example the Pasdaran, a militia body created by Khomeini, which over the years has established itself within the country as an economic, as well as military, power and which has organized the diffusion of the Khomeinist revolutionary word. Will they follow their political leaders and the direction indicated by their foreign policy or will they try to derail an agreement that could lead to a reassessment of their relative weight within the country? As already written, Iran remains a leading player in the Persian Gulf region, and is able to constitute a non-negligible asymmetric threat in the area of ​​the Strait of Hormuz and to influence the flow of energy supplies towards world trade routes. The Pasdaran are the instrument with which Iran exerts its pressure (read "The Iranian maritime strategy in the context of geopolitical balances in the Persian Gulf").

Another question is whether Iranian policy outside the Gulf could change, in line with the easing some analysts would see looming on the horizon. Will Iran give up on the idea of ​​exporting the Shiite theocracy of the Khomeinist revolution outside the borders of Iran, to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen? In particular, will support for the Hitzballah in Lebanon or for the Shiite movement Ansarullah (Yemen), also responsible for direct attacks on other Gulf countries, be revisited? Just Hasan Nasrallah, the head of the Hitzballah, just four days before the signing of the agreement, had publicly ruled out any settlement of the frictions between the two countries.

On the Saudi side, the agreement reached with Tehran could allow Riyadh to lighten its commitment in the bloody Yemeni quagmire. From a political point of view, this rapprochement with Iran and China would appear to be a kind of challenge to the USA, a historical supporter of the Riyadh regime. Almost a "warning" for not having promptly responded to requests for assistance for its nuclear program, formally for civilian use but which has raised more than one doubt about its real purpose, i.e. the acquisition of a tool to balance the program Iranian. A need that Riyadh feels very strong, also taking into account the fact that at the beginning of March theInternational Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated that, at the Fordow site, Iran was working on uranium particles enriched to 83,7% purity: a level very close to that needed to produce atomic weapons1.

To this reason for apprehension is added the regret for the continuation of the restrictions on the sale of US arms for the Riyadh army, motivated by the fear of triggering a dangerous military escalation in the whole area. However, the Saudis' choice does not seem to herald a separation from the US ally. Instead, it appears as a message sent to Washington, a declaration of freedom of thought and the desire to play one's part, having "hands free" from prejudices or constraints dictated by too close ties. A policy of two ovens, in order to be able to make the best use of what is most convenient at the moment.

The other actors

Finally, it remains to be understood what the attitude of the other states in the region will be. Many have welcomed the relaunch of diplomatic relations between the two largest and most influential Gulf countries, while others continue to perceive Iran as a threat to their interests. Changing their feelings could likely take some time. We will see what happens at the next meetings of the Arab League. If they are roses (of the desert)….

Another important aspect of the event is the growth of Chinese political weight in the area, relaunched by this diplomatic miracle which, at the moment, has made it possible to overcome a tough and long-standing political and religious confrontation. A success, consecrated by the signing of the agreement in Beijing, which seems to be largely due to the significant infrastructure investments made by China both in Iran and in Saudi Arabia. Investments that have evidently allowed Beijing to increase its bargaining power also at a political level, allowing it to penetrate the area, despite an experience so far almost exclusively limited to the economic aspects. Unlike the USA, which has always played a predominantly political and military role in the Gulf. A diplomatic point that has allowed Xi Jinping to acquire international credibility and prestige and to also present himself in other theaters of crisis in the role of mediator, such as for his visit to Moscow these days, for the presentation of his plan to end the war triggered by the Russian aggression on Ukraine. However, even the Chinese moves raise many strong doubts. Suffice it to recall Hong Kong and the guarantees promised at the time of passage under Beijing.

On the US side, a composed appreciation was expressed for an agreement which, however, does not eliminate the strong reservations regarding Tehran's policy and its approach to international relations. Washington has also acknowledged that, with this diplomatic success, Beijing is now part of the protagonists of that particular theater, a role that in addition to being diplomatic also aspires to become military, as a result of the twenty-five-year global collaboration between Iran and China signed in March 2021 A military presence far from the level of the Americans, but now consolidated and underlined by the naval exercises conducted with the Iranians in September 2014, June 2017, December 2019 and January 2022 (read "Hong Kong, Beijing and the South China Sea").

Finally, it should be remembered that Israel believed it had completed its political plan linked to the "Abraham process", in an anti-Iranian key, with the participation of Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and Bahrain. The agreement that has just been signed could undermine the hard-won agreements. Pending understanding of the real strategic implications of the agreement and assessing the risks related to a possible "secondary" transfer of technology to Iran, Israel has suspended negotiations regarding the sale of an "advanced defense system" to an Arab nation, a billion dollar deal. To this should be added both concern about the vagueness of the ... US policy in the region ... and the indecision on how to continue relations with China, the mentor of the agreement, given Beijing's important investments in Israeli infrastructure (ports, railway lines , etc…).

In Israel, however, the belief seems to remain that, despite the claims, Iran and Saudi Arabia will remain opponents …on a religious, ideological and strategic level…2 and they probably won't be able to achieve no real collaboration.


The details of the agreement are not known, nor what the three countries concerned actually said to each other during the negotiation. Even if the agreement reached probably will not represent a game changer in the region (as some enthusiastic observers would hope) will certainly have a significant impact, at least in the short term.

The hope is that the reopening of diplomatic channels will lead to a reduction in tensions and some overall stability in an extremely delicate and important region, both for global economic and political balances. A stability that is desired above all by those with interests in the closest geopolitical areas, such as the Mediterranean.

However, it is too early to rejoice or be wary. We do not yet know what the real implications of the new historical course will be, nor how long it will last. Without allowing ourselves to be captivated by bombastic proclamations, we will have to evaluate only concrete actions. Verba volant, acta manent.

1 Francesco Petronella, Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia resume, Treccani online, 13 March 2023

2 Maj Gen (res) Amos Yadlin, The balance of power in the Middle East is changing for the worse, Israeli Mako News website, March 13, 2023

Image: IRNA