It’s advantage China in the Saudi-Iran deal
This article is authored by Soumen Ray, former Indian ambassador and high commissioner.
Riyadh snapped diplomatic relations with Tehran after Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran in 2016 following the Saudi authorities’ execution of the revered Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr whom a Saudi special court awarded death sentence on the charges of seeking 'foreign meddling' in Saudi Arabia, 'disobeying' its rulers and taking up arms against the security forces.
After seven years, the two countries have signed a relatively narrow accord concerning reopening embassies in each other’s capital, resumption of trade relations and security from attacks. These forward steps are indeed necessary to improve bilateral economic relations and reduce tensions to some degree, but these are not sufficient to solve their ideological and political differences, the two main factors which were key to their long-standing rivalry.
For the last four decades Saudis and Iran vied for enlarging their spheres of influence in the Muslim world. Crux of this silent war between them lies the Shi’ia -Sunni divide and Iran’s refusal to accept moral authority of the “upstart” Saudi monarchy to rule the holy land of Islam.
But to stay in power their cannot refuse to listen to voice of the large number of their countries’ citizens. Like other peoples, Iranians and Saudis naturally want their leaders to focus their attention on domestic affairs, pursuing harmony, granting at least some democratic rights and welfare of their own people at home rather than fomenting anarchy in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, isolating Qatar and destabilising Lebanon. With sectarian overtones, these proxy wars have crippled the sponsors economy, damaged their societies and undermined their own security.
The pragmatic de facto young ruler of Saudi Arabia has realised the futility of continuing this state policy, albeit late. The war in Yemen not only is a huge drain from their coffer, the Iranian backed Huthis are now inflicting huge loses at their oil facilities and, with no clear end in sight, a face-saving exit must be found out. Bonhomie with Israel cannot be continued further especially with coming of the far-right government there. Saudis did not become a party to the Abraham Accord because Israel has not yet officially accepted “two-State’ solution- a Saudi precondition to normalise their relations with Israel. And the new Israeli government has made it clear that it believes in ‘one State’.
It is true that Saudi Arabia is being heavily courted by Israel and there have been subtler signs of potential cooperation like Saudis allowing Israel to use its airspace for their international flights, unofficial and unannounced visit of the Israeli prime minister to Riyadh and the like. But giving an ear to the voice of the Arab streets, they had to make it clear to the Israelis that it cannot take it for granted Saudi’s support for military action against any country in the region including Iran.
The Saudi ruler is also aware that any rapprochement with Iran will definitely antagonise the United States (US) which has been trying to expand the Abraham Accords by including Saudi Arabia in it to impose a new nuclear deal on Iran through sanctions and regional pressure. At the same time Saudi Arabia being almost fully dependent on the US for its defence, the Crown Prince wants to follow a hybrid policy like the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Through this hybrid policy Saudi Arabia can also secure its own interests first and foremost.
So far Iran is concerned, it is under huge pressure both from within and from outside. The long period of huge countrywide protests against death of a young girl Mahasa Amini in police custody has shaken their political structure, economic sanctions has shattered their economy, continuous pressure as well as threat from the IAEA, the EU and of course, the US to stop enriching uranium, export of oil falling to drops, supporting wars/ political unrest in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon draining the remaining money from their national kitty, placed the ruling Supreme Council in a tight corner. Iran desperately needs a way out of this entanglement.
It is under the circumstances both Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed in principle to end a conflict that has proven costly and toxic to both nations and disastrous to West Asia. Iraq agreed to midwife and provide all necessary support, facilities and security to both the parties. Since 2022 there have been five rounds of direct talks between Amir Saeed Iravani— former deputy to the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and now Iran’s UN ambassador and Khalid bin Ali al-Humaidan, director general of the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate, as the chief negotiators of the two countries. Iran’s delegation was a mixture of experts from the intelligence and foreign ministries, and SNSC. After the fifth round, the two sides agreed on a general roadmap for normalising relations. They were fairly hopeful to finalise their cooperation accord very soon. However, the political unrest that followed thereafter was not found conducive to continue further negotiations in Baghdad. Though all the stakeholders in the region and abroad were aware of these developments, there was no public announcement from the parties involved in the peace negotiations.
There was a frantic hunt for a new venue to continue their talks. No mutually accepted trustworthy country was not found except China which has excellent political and economic relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. China also saw a big opportunity to enter into the Middle East it has been eying for quite some time. The US political stock in the region is on the wane and Russia is busy fighting in Ukraine- hardly in a position to assist any friend reasonably. So there was a vacuum. Why not capitalise on that? So, it wanted to play the matchmaker and fill the strategic void. If succeeds, it can definitely demonstrate its credentials as a trustworthy global partner. And the marriage of convenience driven by national interest and shaped by political and economic calculus has already been finalised in Baghdad. China played the role of priest.
By re-establishing its ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia has definitely given more importance to Iran over an overt rapprochement with Israel. This also indicates the Saudi diplomatic ploy to mend its rift with Turkey and Qatar. However, between signing a narrow-based agreement and its actual implementation and implications, there are many slips.
Indeed, the Saudi-Iran deal is perhaps the first indication of a changing Middle-East where countries are acting more independently. They are no more solely dependent on global powers to shape relations among them. But at the same time, it should not be expected that Saudi Arabia and Iran will change their foreign policies as well as relations with their present allies in short term period. The Saudis cannot shake off the US from their global strategic partnership. Recently the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times reported that the Saudis privately lobby for “security guarantees from the United States and assistance with a civilian nuclear program in exchange for a deal with Israel”. Moreover, there are many issues where Saudi Arabia and Iran distrust each other and many friction points.
Iran’s conventional forces are weak. Simply re-establishing its ties with Saudi Arabia, Iran cannot afford to wind up its overt and covert support to its proxies in the countries where it plays military and political roles. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which controls and operates through those proxies plays the most important role in Iran’s foreign policy. So, Iran is not certainly able to make its surrogates orphans in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Iraq.
In this volatile situation it is too early to make a definitive comment on future Saudi-Iran cooperation and Israel’s relationship with Riyadh. But one thing could be said with certainty: China will stay on in this region after delivering the Saudi-Iran accord. It will try its best to reconcile and normalise amicable relations between them. That would allow China to get a firmer foothold in this part of the world at the cost of its arch rival, the US.
The article has been authored by Soumen Ray, former Indian ambassador and high commissioner who has served extensively in the Gulf, West Asia, and Eastern and Southern African countries.