The March 10 announcement from Iran and Saudi Arabia that they had agreed to resume normal diplomatic ties caught most of the international community by surprise. The National Security Advisers of Iran and Saudi Arabia, Ali Shamkhani and Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban, signed the agreement in Beijing in the presence of Wang Yi, China’s senior-most diplomat.
The rapprochement came about after several years of behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts. The region’s two major powers have had fraught relations since the Islamic revolution of 1979, which overthrew the Shah of Iran. Oman and Iraq played a role in initiating the talks, but China played the clinching mediating role.
The joint Saudi-Iran statement praised “the noble initiative of his excellency, the Chinese President Xi Jinping”. According to reports, when Xi met Arab leaders in Riyadh in December, he floated the idea of a high-level meeting in Beijing between Gulf Cooperation Council leaders and Iran. China is the biggest trading partner of both Iran and Saudi Arabia.
To coincide with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to China in February, the Iranian government had despatched Ali Bagheri Kani, its top nuclear negotiator, to Riyadh to lay the groundwork for the deal. Raisi had called on the Chinese side to help revive the US-Iran nuclear deal so that the crippling economic sanctions on the country could be lifted. China is a signatory to the deal. Raisi also called for more Chinese investments and help to bolster the beleaguered Iranian economy.
Shamkhani, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, told the Iranian media that Raisi’s visit to China cleared the path “for very serious negotiations” between the Iranian and Saudi delegations in Beijing. “Addressing misunderstandings and looking at the future will help develop stability and regional security,” Shamkhani said. Iran’s National Security Council is under the direct control of the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Only a few details of the deal have been made public. The two sides have set a time frame of two months to fully re-establish diplomatic relations. Within this period, they are supposed to reactivate a lapsed security cooperation agreement and older trade, investment, and cultural accords. There are also clear signs that the warring sides in Yemen are near to reaching a political settlement after more than seven years.
‘Chinese solutions and wisdom’
Wang described the Iran-Saudi agreement as a “victory for dialogue, a victory for peace, and is major positive news for the world which is currently so turbulent and restive”. He said it “set an example for resolving conflicts and differences among countries through dialogue and consultation”. Implicitly criticising the West, he said that the agreement was illustrative of how the two nations were “getting rid of external interference, and truly taking the future and destiny of the Middle East [West Asia], into their own hands”. Last year China unveiled the Global Security Initiative. Xi said that the GSI is aimed “at providing Chinese solutions and wisdom” to the biggest traditional and non-traditional challenges the world is facing today.
Commentators and experts on the region have described the agreement as “a diplomatic coup” for China, which clearly used the “soft power” it has accumulated in the region over the last three decades to influence events. Against the US network of military bases across the region, China has used trade, investments and an apparent willingness to share expertise in telecommunications, artificial intelligence, and other high-tech areas. China’s Huawei, for instance, provides 5G networks to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar. Not to mention that China’s stake in stability is high because more than 40 per cent of its energy imports are from the region.
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During his March Moscow visit, President Xi also came up with a comprehensive peace proposal to end the Ukraine conflict. Although the West immediately rejected it, the rest of the international community was more amenable. The Iran-Saudi agreement thus comes at a time when the West is facing off with both China and Russia, with the former over South China Sea and Taiwan and with the latter over Ukraine.
State of the region
Iran and Saudi Arabia cut formal ties seven years ago after the Saudi government executed Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, a leading Shia cleric and government critic. His beheading enraged the Iranian government and the Shia community worldwide. An angry Iranian crowd ransacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran, which prompted the Saudi government to recall its ambassador and freeze formal diplomatic ties with Iran.
The conflicts in Syria and Yemen led to a worsening of ties. The Saudis had supported the radical Islamist groups that were hoping to destabilise Syria. Iran along with Syria and the Hezbollah in Lebanon constituted the so-called “axis of resistance” against the US and Israel. Both the US and Saudi Arabia had calculated that regime change in Syria would break this alliance and cut Iran off from its closest allies in the region. The Saudis intervened even more forcefully eight years ago in Yemen to prevent the Houthis from consolidating power there.
Yemen and Saudi Arabia share a long border. The Saudi-led war in Yemen has caused immense damage to the country and its people. The UN estimates that more than 1,77,000 people have perished as a result of the war.
Even before the war started, Yemen was among the most impoverished countries in the world. A Saudi delegation arrived in Sana’a in the second week of April to hold talks with the Houthi-led government for a ceasefire and a comprehensive peace deal. The Houthis’ main demand is the lifting of the Saudi-led blockade imposed in 2015. The Saudis and the Yemenis, according to reports, have agreed to a six-month truce and three months of talks for the formation of a transition government.
The war in Yemen was proving costly for the Saudis. The Iranians, on the other hand, desperately wanted a respite from US sanctions, which have devastated their economy. Both sides evidently decided that it was time to open a new chapter in their hitherto volatile relationship. Even more significant, China brokered the agreement between the two key West Asian powers when historically, for the last seven decades and more, it has been the US that has facilitated peace deals or provoked wars in the region.
Policy of maximum pressure
The Iran-Saudi agreement is also a clear indication that the US policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran has failed. Its regional allies have indicated that they would rather do business with Iran than wage war against it. “The countries of the region share one fate,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan. “That makes it necessary for us to work together to build models of prosperity and stability.” Prince Faisal and Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, his Iranian counterpart, met in Beijing in early April to formally announce the restoration of diplomatic ties. On March 19, the Saudi monarch, King Salman, formally invited the Iranian President to visit Saudi Arabia. The Iranian side has accepted the invitation.
Victory for Iran
The developments are also being viewed as a diplomatic victory for Iran. The US has been targeting Iran for “regime change” since the Islamic revolution. But despite American hostility, Iran has only increased its influence in the region. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq was a turning point. When Iraq was led by Saddam Hussein, it was Iran’s implacable foe, but it is now one of the country’s staunchest allies.
Before US President Donald Trump left office, he had brokered the “Abraham Accords” under which the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan formally recognised Israel. The US was expecting the Saudi government to follow suit and help build an even stronger anti-Iran coalition in the region by formally recognising Israel and strengthening its security cooperation with the Zionist state.
- The March 10 announcement from Iran and Saudi Arabia that they had agreed to resume normal diplomatic ties caught most of the international community by surprise.
- Iran and Saudi Arabia cut formal ties seven years ago after the Saudi government executed Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, a leading Shia cleric and government critic.
- The two sides have set a time frame of two months to fully re-establish diplomatic relations.
- Against the US network of military bases across the region, China has used trade, investments and an apparent willingness to share expertise in telecommunications, artificial intelligence, and other high-tech areas.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been talking about the imminence of a formal Saudi recognition. Now, there is little chance of the Saudis joining the Abraham Accords. Shamkhani said that the Iran-Saudi deal would “counter the nefarious activities” of Israel in the Gulf region. In recent years, Israel has carried out many terror attacks inside Iran, targeting top scientists connected with the country’s nuclear programme.
Until recently, the Saudi government was encouraging the US to continue its punitive sanctions on Iran and had even signalled that it was not averse to the US using military force. Saudi Arabia had expected the Trump administration to react forcefully against Iran after a long-range missile and drones targeted a major Saudi refinery in September 2019 and an Aramco oil refinery in Riyadh in March last year. The Houthis claimed credit for the attack, but the US and Saudi Arabia claimed that Iran was behind it.
But when the US failed to respond, the Saudis seem to have concluded that the defence umbrella the US provides is not actually an ironclad security guarantee. The Saudis were among Trump’s loudest cheerleaders when he scrapped the US-Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions. But relations with Washington have noticeably soured since President Joseph Biden took office. The Saudis have refused to help the US in the Ukrainian war effort by slashing oil prices.
The Biden administration extended a lukewarm welcome to the rapprochement between the two rivals. The spokesman for the US National Security Council said that the US supported the agreement to “the degree that it could de-escalate tensions” in the area.
The country’s political and security establishment was visibly upset at being upstaged by China in a region it considers its bailiwick. Commentaries in the mainstream US media blamed the Biden administration for leaving a vacuum there for China to fill.
India’s cautious welcome
India extended a cautious welcome to the deal. The spokesperson for the External Affairs Ministry said that India had always been “in favour of dialogue and diplomacy”. Yet, only days before, the government was in a celebratory mood after participating in a meeting of the I2U2 group, which comprises India, Israel, the UAE, and the US.
Under the BJP government, India’s foreign policy has tilted even further towards the anti-Iran bloc. Iran has been unhappy with India’s growing strategic embrace of the US and its adherence to the unilateral sanctions regime. The Iranian Foreign Minister cancelled his visit to Delhi in February, when he was to attend the Raisina Dialogue hosted by the Observer Research Foundation. The country objected to the promotional video of the conference that highlighted the recent anti-hijab protests in Iran. The conference is held every year in close coordination with the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.
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Trita Parsi, an expert on the region, said the Saudi-Iranian agreement was “good news” as the tensions “have been a driver of instability in the region”. Iran is said to be making concerted efforts to mend ties with other countries in the region such as the UAE and Bahrain. Shamkhani was recently in the UAE with a delegation of senior Iranian officials. Dubai, the UAE’s commercial hub, is important for Iran. The Iranian government and private business houses have used it to sidestep some sanctions. Pressure from Abu Dhabi, which effectively runs the Emirates, and the US forced the Dubai authorities to clamp down on Iranian businesses. Dubai’s economy was also affected by the sanctions on Iran.
The Saudis too are trying to mend relations with regional rivals such as Syria. The Saudi-Iranian rivalry contributed to Lebanon’s economic meltdown and political chaos. The new-found bonhomie between the two countries could help reunify Syria and get Lebanon back on its feet.