A Positive New Milestone in Saudi-Iranian Relations
According to a joint statement issued following talks in Beijing, Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed to resume diplomatic relations and reopen embassies. It also confirmed the two parties’ agreement to mutual sovereignty and non-interference in each other’s affairs. According to the statement, the two countries agreed to reopen their embassies within two months, while the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran will also meet to implement the agreement, exchange ambassadors and discuss ways to strengthen relations.
The agreement was signed by Saudi Security Minister Musaid Al Aiban, the head of Iran’s National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, in the presence of Wang Yi, China’s chief diplomat. It may be recalled that diplomatic relations were severed in 2016 following the execution by Saudi Arabia of a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric and the subsequent attack on Saudi diplomatic facilities in Tehran. The agreement also provides for mutual respect for the sovereignty of both countries and allows for renewed security, trade and cultural ties.
The agreement is significant because it was signed by the two largest powers in the Middle East after endless disputes and seven years of a diplomatic freeze. The talks, which began under former Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, focused on ways to ease tensions between the two countries, resume diplomatic relations and resolve disputes arising from Iran’s role in Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. Thus, all previous rounds of discussions were mainly security-related. However, the recent agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the joint statement issued by the two countries, together with China, mark a shift from security issues to diplomatic dialogue. This is another significant step forward in the recovery of the international situation in the turbulent Gulf region.
The reasons for this breakthrough are varied, but the underlying factor is that the new world, which Russia and its President Vladimir Putin are actively promoting, is gradually gaining strength and more states are supporting it. Russia has pursued a foreign policy approach based primarily on easing tensions, ending disputes and restoring stability. This foreign policy approach is part of Russia’s larger vision of establishing a new multipolar world, in which the Persian Gulf states are vested. The new vision prioritizes peace over war, dialogue over severing ties, and directs the vast resources of the entire world toward prosperity and development, rather than funding bloated military budgets and weapons production, the way the West, particularly the United States, does.
The question is, why did China emerge at the end, and what role does it play? The answer is straightforward: Beijing is a close ally of both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Despite US global economic sanctions against Tehran, China is each country’s main trading partner as well as the largest consumer of Iranian goods. That is why China will be the guarantor of both sides of the agreement, and if either cheats and refuses to implement the agreements clearly and accurately, Beijing will find ways and means to punish the “renegade.” China has played the role of a great mediator, demonstrating that Beijing’s constructive presence in the Middle East is a stabilizing alternative to the US, which has stood behind the region’s crises for decades. In other words, China is trying to define a leading role for itself in the region by developing its relations with Middle Eastern countries and taking the place of the US in the region.
Many political analysts believe, and apparently rightly so, that the implementation of the agreement will largely depend on how both sides manage the situation in Yemen, where Riyadh and Tehran supported the conflicting sides in the civil war that broke out immediately after former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was overthrown in 2011. According to Khaled Okasha, head of the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies, Yemen is almost the ultimate test of this recent diplomatic shift that the Iranians and Saudis have decided to make. And, as he puts it, “the Saudis are eager to end the war in Yemen because it has proved rather difficult for them and has not achieved its key objectives.” If Iran plays fair in Yemen and decides to encourage its Shiite allies, the Houthis, to move toward an agreement with the Saudi-backed Yemeni presidential council, then “things could go the right way,” he added. Egyptian political scientist Karim Ahmed argues that at this point it is in the interests of both the Saudis and Iranians to work toward an agreement on Yemen, because neither country is interested in continuing this endless war, which has cost the Yemeni people dearly.
The international reaction to the thaw between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been mostly positive, depending on each country’s own interests. China, for example, welcomed the agreement and called it a victory for peace. Almost all countries in the West Asian and North African region welcomed the deal. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian received a significant number of calls from foreign officials congratulating him on the development. In addition, countries in the region issued statements welcoming the Iranian-Saudi thaw. Furthermore, many groups in the region expressed satisfaction with the deal. Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah called the deal beneficial for the region. The Yemeni leader of the Ansarullah group also said that Tehran and Riyadh need diplomatic relations. Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Turkey are among the countries that have welcomed the restoration of ties between Tehran and Riyadh. This broad welcome stems from the fact that most countries and groups in the region benefit from improved Iranian-Saudi relations. In addition to the three parties to the deal, all of the aforementioned countries and groups are considered winners.
However, the deal has its losers, the biggest of which is Israel. This was evident as soon as the trilateral deal was announced. Avigdor Lieberman, a former Israeli minister, called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign over the Iran-Saudi deal because it was his personal fiasco. Former Prime Minister Yair Lapid called the deal a dangerous development that deprives Israel of its regional trump cards against Iran. “The agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran reflects a complete and dangerous failure of the Israeli government’s foreign policy,” Yair Lapid said, according to Israeli media. Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the resumption of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia was a “serious and dangerous development for Israel” and “a political victory for Iran.” “It is a death blow to the effort to build a regional coalition against Iran,” Bennett said. He then lamented: “The countries of the world and the region are watching Israel in turmoil over a dysfunctional government that is engaged in systematic self-destruction.”
But Israel was not the only loser. The US position in the West Asian region also took a hit. The trilateral deal was negotiated exclusively by Asian powers, marking a significant shift in the geopolitics of the region. Gone are the days when the US was the master of the region, as, because of its clumsy, ill-conceived policies, the current administration of Joe Biden has lost all its trump cards and all its prestige. As you know, this agreement was signed in Beijing, not in the city on the hill that has lost its luster, Washington, D.C. An article published at the Washington-based Center for Strategic International Studies by senior fellow John Alterman argues that the US, after recent events, must be beginning to see China as a competitor with a powerful and growing presence in the Persian Gulf. China’s presence in the region will only expand – “albeit slowly but surely,” argued Mohammed Fayez, a senior expert on Asian affairs at the Al-Ahram Center for Policy and Strategic Studies. Nevertheless, he added that it is hard to think that “China today has the military or security capabilities to replace the US military and security role in the region.”
The signed agreement, however, leaves several important issues out of the equation. These certainly include the tacit agreements the two countries will reach in other areas of contested influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia, especially regarding Iraq and Lebanon. It is really hard to think that Tehran or Riyadh would give up their influence in any of the countries of the region. The problem will be the implicit lines of power that Riyadh and Tehran agree on, whether in Yemen or elsewhere in the territories of conflicting interests in the region. This is why it would be a mistake to qualify the recent announcement as a Saudi-Iranian reconciliation pact – it is too premature and requires a lot of work. It is difficult to assume that a tentative agreement on non-interference, which mainly concerns Iranian influence over the Shiites of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain or indirect Saudi influence over the Sunnis of Iran, and on a de-escalation scheme in Yemen could dispel longstanding animosities and deep rivalries between Sunnis and Shiites.