Saudi-Iran Thaw: The Transition from Cold War to Warm Peace

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Mohammad Alzghool|13 Apr 2023
Key Takeaways

  • China, the mastermind behind the Saudi-Iran détente, recognized the importance of aligning with Iran’s deep state to guarantee the durability and potency of the agreement with the country, mainly those concerning national sovereignty matters.
  • Should the IRGC perceive the accord with Saudi Arabia as an infringement on its regional clout and pecking order within Iran’s power structure, it would not be far-fetched to see it unleashing a plethora of covert and overt tactics to undermine the accord or, at the very least, relegate it to the realm of a “cold peace.”
  • The pact with Saudi Arabia by Iran’s deep state emissary, Ali Shamkhani, does not guarantee its success nor obligate all of Iran’s deep state apparatuses to adhere to it.
  • This initial step requires further moves, such as prodding the Iranian camp to openly and unambiguously endorse it, ideally from the highest echelon of authority, mainly Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The recent Saudi-Iran detente, brokered with Chinese mediation, was mainly focused on political and security aspects rather than economic cooperation. It is a litmus test for two regional arch-rivals with divergent outlooks on security policies that have often collided. While specific economic provisions were included in the agreement, the emphasis was firmly placed on political and security commitments and broad-based frameworks for conflict resolution.

Beyond the differences and vested interests lies a terrain of regional discord and rivalry that requires consensus on issues stretching from Iraq to Lebanon, traversing Syria, and culminating in Yemen, which stands out as a crucial national security issue for Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the regional map highlights the reach of the “Iranian regional hegemony project” that emanates from the “Iranian Shia centralism” doctrine and which relies on sectarian strategies, guerrilla tactics, and asymmetric warfare for its implementation. Iran’s deep state apparatuses have vigorously spearheaded the execution and oversight of this agenda over the past two decades.

Previous attempts at Saudi-Iran negotiations failed over the years despite numerous diplomatic endeavors. The Iranian government lacked the necessary authority to make critical decisions on regional issues, and a non-sanctioned proxy on the Iranian side conducted the talks. China, the mastermind behind the recent Saudi-Iran detente, recognized the importance of aligning with Iran’s deep state to guarantee the durability and potency of the accord made with Iran, mainly concerning national sovereignty matters. This has also added value to the China-Iran strategic cooperation agreement.

China’s expertise may have influenced the Saudi-Iranian accord, which was reached through one of the deep state agencies authorized to make critical decisions on the main points of contention between the two regional adversaries. Various global stakeholders believe that any accord with Iran’s governments would remain fragile unless it receives the approval of the deep state. However, a mere blessing does not necessarily guarantee that the accord will hold. It is easy for deep state actors to renounce the outcome of any talks in which they did not participate firsthand or sign.

As a result of this belief, various international stakeholders are eager to sideline Iranian governments and increasingly seek communication channels with deep state agencies. This idea is supported by historical evidence, as the fragility of the 2015 nuclear pact inked by President Hassan Rouhani’s administration, despite garnering approval from deep state actors, highlighted the need for the involvement of those actors. This prompted China to bypass President Hassan Rouhani’s administration and negotiate its strategic partnership pact with Iran through deep state envoys. A sovereign entity ratified the accord, and the government was tasked with executing all necessary measures.

The Saudi-Iran accord followed the same pattern as the China-Iran strategic partnership agreement, focusing on engaging with the relevant stakeholders with authority to make pivotal decisions on thorny issues. Notably, the pact was endorsed by the secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), affiliated with the office of the Iranian Supreme Leader (Beit-e Rahbari, or Office of the Supreme Leadership Authority), Ali Khamenei. However, whether the SNSC’s secretary’s signature guarantees the deep state’s commitment to the agreement’s substance and its enduring continuity remains.

Caught in Conundrum: Iran’s Deep State and the Accord with Saudi Arabia

Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, is a close confidant of the House of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who represents the core of Iran’s deep state. He was appointed to his current role by former President Hassan Rouhani, who tasked him to oversee several crucial sovereign issues in recent years. However, since the inauguration of Ebrahim Raisi’s administration, Shamkhani has been at the receiving end of a barrage of media and political onslaughts mounted by certain government officials and some personalities regarded as political proxies of the deep state.

Reports suggest that Raisi’s regime aimed to remove Shamkhani from his post, even before the signing of the Saudi-Iranian pact, and replace him with General Ahmed Vahidi, the Interior Minister. There were also rumors of discord between the government and Shamkhani, who espoused taking the economic portfolio away from President Ebrahim Raisi and assigning it to his vice president. Before these events, the “Resilience Front,” a political faction aligned with the IRGC in the parliament, attacked Shamkhani and called for his removal, alleging that he did not collaborate with the revolutionary forces in quashing public protests.

Setting aside the debate over Ali Shamkhani’s character, previous events reveal that efforts have been made to diminish the diplomatic role of the “Leader’s House” establishment and curb its sway over regional affairs in favor of the IRGC. This trend started during President Ahmadinejad’s term, particularly amid the Syrian crisis. It reached its pinnacle with the sidelining of prominent figures like Ali Akbar Velayati, the former Iranian foreign minister and the Supreme Leader’s adviser on diplomatic affairs.

Despite Velayati’s significant role in shaping Iran’s regional policies, he was excluded from steering diplomatic decisions. The rise of General Qassem Soleimani marked a significant turning point in cementing the IRGC’s grip over regional affairs. Through the Quds Force, the IRGC has emerged as the primary actor shaping regional politics according to its agenda. This domination over regional affairs has reached the point where the IRGC can now nominate and dismiss ambassadors, even those affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the official governmental apparatus.

These can be compared to dividing responsibilities or delegating duties among the different entities of Iran’s deep state. The nuclear program was supervised by agencies connected to the Iranian Supreme Leader’s House, while the IRGC took charge of the “missile program” and “regional affairs.” This system of task-sharing resulted in the marginalization of the government’s role in most crucial matters. However, it entrenched the “dualism in the deep state” concept by dividing responsibilities between the IRGC and the “Leadership House” establishment.

Despite receiving a positive response from the Iranian media, the reception of the Saudi-Iran agreement from the IRGC-aligned press was lukewarm. So far, there has been no endorsement from any figure representing the political branches of the IRGC, including Saeed Jalili, Hamid Rasai, Hussein Taeb, and Mahdi Taeb. The lack of any response may suggest that the IRGC perceives Shamkhani’s endeavor, despite his background as a former general and one of the IRGC’s earliest architects, as an unwarranted intervention by the “Leader’s House” in the regional issues that have constituted a pivotal element of the IRGC’s influence over the past decade.

The IRGC may view this intervention as yet another attempt to limit its control over regional affairs, following previous disagreements over the appointment of ambassadors in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. The commotion from Khamenei’s decision to depose the former IRGC intelligence chief, General Hossein Taeb, exposed a fierce rivalry between the Supreme Leader’s House and the IRGC over security and domestic political matters. The power struggle between the IRGC and the House of the Leader, represented by Ali Khamenei, goes beyond regional affairs and extends to military strategies and budget allocations. Moreover, the Iranian military budget for this year showed a significant decrease in the gap between the IRGC’s share and that of the army.

Consequently, the IRGC has many reasons to believe there is an ongoing attempt to curtail its position internally and externally. It appears that the Supreme Leader has embarked on a mission to diminish the IRGC’s standing in the power hierarchy and reassert the absolute decision-making power of the “Leader’s House” institution in Iran. If the IRGC perceives the agreement with Saudi Arabia as an infringement on its regional clout and position within Iran’s power structure, it would not be surprising to see it employing a plethora of covert and overt tactics to weaken the agreement’s essence or, at the very least, relegate it to the realm of a “cold peace.”

Is the Chinese Seal Enough?

Previous instances suggest that reaching conclusive resolutions regarding controversial or conflicting matters within Iranian governing bodies is challenging. Some of these instances are intertwined with General Ali Shamkhani’s record. His bid to secure the release of reformist leaders Mir Hassan Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi from their house arrest has hit a wall. Shortly after being named Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Shamkhani launched a campaign to free them. Sources close to Shamkhani said the issue was referred to the Supreme National Security Council. Media reports said the restrictions previously imposed on the two reformist leaders had been somewhat relaxed. However, Shamkhani’s ambitious move, improbable without the Supreme Leader’s approval, fell short after being vehemently rejected by the IRGC.

Amid intense street protests, another venture by Shamkhani also failed due to similar reasons as the previous one. The Leader’s House had charged Shamkhani with the responsibility of holding talks with political factions, including the reformist movement, to devise a “reunification” scheme that entails a degree of political liberalization. Nevertheless, the bid was unsuccessful. Shamkhani was met with a fierce backlash from the political factions affiliated with the IRGC both inside and outside of parliament, demanding his removal for deviating from the course.

These events demonstrate that despite Shamkhani’s position as a trusted confidant of the Supreme Leader, his leadership of an initiative does not guarantee its success, nor that it would get the support of the deep start actors. The government may also disrupt Shamkhani’s plans due to feelings of alienation and resentment. Additionally, the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, may be reluctant to take a clear position on the Saudi-Iran agreement due to concerns over the potential outcome and the possibility that the IRGC, which still dominates most of Iran’s regional policies, may not lend its backing.

Considering the IRGC’s operational prowess, its reluctance to endorse the Saudi-Iran accord renders it precarious, particularly if the IRGC perceives it as a bid by the “Leader’s House” to disrupt the current equilibrium and diminish the IRGC’s clout. Nonetheless, one should not overstate this matter, as this article calls for prudence and vigilance, not pessimism, given that the IRGC has yet to voice its opposition to the agreement. Furthermore, the Chinese assurances are deemed a “potent” leverage tactic against the IRGC, which engages with Chinese counterparts in important economic ventures. We only deem it “potent” because, according to the IRGC doctrine, which prioritizes ideology over economy and strategy over politics, the Chinese guarantees are not set in stone.

The recent pact with Saudi Arabia, signed by Iran’s deep state emissary, Ali Shamkhani, does not guarantee its success nor bind all of Iran’s deep state actors to adhere to it. Instead, it is a nascent step that requires further development by encouraging the Iranian camp to openly and unambiguously endorse the accord, ideally with approval from the highest echelon of authority, namely Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself. It is also essential to consider the stance of the IRGC on the accord and to find ways to ensure that it does not stand against it. It can be said that the challenge has just begun for this agreement, which materialized after a week of negotiations with only one of Iran’s deep state factions.



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