Photo: Atta Kenare / AFP / Scanpix / LETA
Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to restore diplomatic relations, which were severed in 2016. This was an important event for the entire Middle East, because the development of events here is mainly determined by the confrontation between these two countries. China played a major role in the reconciliation, which was very popular with Russian propagandists and pro-government commentators. They see this as evidence that the influence of the United States in the region is declining. However, an expert on Iranian politics, “Officer for Iran” Telegram-channel author Nikita Smagin wrote in his article for Carnegie Politika publication verb in fact, Beijing is a competitor not only for Washington, but also for Moscow.
The two main rivals in the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have agreed to restore diplomatic relations after a seven-year hiatus. Although the prospect of a full reconciliation between the two traditional rivals is still in question, such a decision is now beneficial for both sides.
But the country that will definitely benefit from this agreement is China, which is the mediator in the negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Previously, Beijing was not very interested in political processes in the Middle East. But now the scenario of China pushing the USA and Russia out of this region seems real again.
Iran and Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties in 2016 after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shia cleric (Ayatollah Nimra al-Nimra). An agreement to restore ties has been under discussion for more than a year. Iraq was an early mediator. Since April 2021, several rounds of negotiations have been held in Baghdad. Negotiations reached an impasse and stalled for several months before resuming.
In January 2022, it seemed that the agreement was close. For the first time since 2016, Saudi Arabia issued visas to three Iranian diplomats working for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (the headquarters of the organization is located in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia). And Tehran reacted positively to the integration of the energy sectors of Saudi Arabia and Iraq, until then Iran included the energy of Iraq only in the scope of its interests.
However, 2022 was not the year of agreement. The Iranian government has been busy suppressing protests and other internal problems. Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, cooperation between Tehran and Moscow has also come into focus. No one remembered the Iranians trying to compromise with the Saudis. For this reason, the conclusion of the agreement on the normalization of relations in Beijing in March 2023 was an unexpected event.
However, Tehran and Riyadh have long understood that restoring diplomatic relations is the best option available. Iran’s goal is clear. In recent years, the country has been moving from one tension to another. Israel regularly carries out sabotage actions against Iran’s nuclear facilities and strikes against pro-Iranian forces.
Since Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, relations with Washington have also not normalized. It is enough to recall the attacks of the US armed forces on Baghdad, which killed the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. This episode almost caused a military conflict in the region.
Tehran has been unable to actively expand its influence in the Middle East for a long time. For example, even after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Iran did not strengthen its position in the region. And now the Iranians are not in a state of expansion, because there are no free resources. On the contrary, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Iran to maintain its positions in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. In such a situation, the officials of the Islamic Republic have come to the conclusion that the best way to alleviate their difficult international situation is to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia.
The Iranians have long called on Riyadh to start dialogue and have used various pressure methods, including verbal appeals, to further persuade the Saudis. For example, Iranian drones attacked Saudi Arabia at the hands of the Yemeni Houthis, Iranian hackers attacked critical infrastructure in the kingdom, and mysterious explosions occurred on Saudi tankers from time to time.
In the end, though not all of the reasons depended on it, the “coercive relationship” tactic worked. Among other things, the reduction of US involvement in the Middle East has encouraged the Saudis to compromise with Iran. It is clear that the Saudi leadership does not want to stay with Iran in the future. All that remains is to agree on a reconciliation formula.
A dead deal
The details of this Iran-Saudi reconciliation formula have not been disclosed. It may be about some limitation of spheres of influence in the region. However, in any case, the agreements do not make it possible to put all the contradictions between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the past. These two countries have been arch-rivals for years: a revolutionary republic and a Sunni monarchy, “Death to America!” anti-colonial force with the slogan and a strong point of US influence.
During the 40 years of the existence of the Islamic Republic, the relations between Tehran and Riyadh have been normalized several times. But then everything inevitably turned towards a new conflict. It cannot be denied that similar foreign policy zig-zags will recur. The Iranians and Saudis remain adversaries, and so far no one is seriously talking about full reconciliation.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that everything does not directly depend on these two countries that have signed the agreement. It is important for Saudi Arabia to reach an end to the war with the Houthis in Yemen. Now, it is possible to agree with Iran to reduce or completely stop aid to the rebels. However, does this solve the problem? The Houthis have already said that normalization between Iran and Saudi Arabia will have no effect on military operations.
Undoubtedly, both countries want to reduce tensions in the region. However, events can sometimes be stronger than their desire to reconcile.
What the real consequences of this agreement will be for the Iranians and the Saudis is yet to be assessed. What can be discussed now is the unexpected role of China, which acted as a mediator. Many are already calling Beijing a new player in the Middle East against the US. And the Russian mass media began to talk about China’s growing role in the region with great satisfaction.
Washington is really losing interest in the Middle East. The American government is not very happy with the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but could have provided security guarantees to Riyadh to prevent it, but did not do so. The US agrees to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, but does not want to protect it with US troops. In the current situation, the White House prefers to agree to a normalization between Iran and Saudi Arabia rather than to directly intervene in a military confrontation between the two countries.
Beijing, for its part, presents itself as a responsible and peace-loving power that seeks constructive solutions and is able to eliminate problems on the spot. In recent years, the successful mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have been waging a proxy war with each other (a war between two countries at the hands of a third country), has shown that China, unlike the United States, is capable of stopping regional conflicts in practice, not limited to general words about peace. .
Of course, China’s diplomatic success in the Middle East does not mean that Beijing can arrange a deal between Ukraine and Russia based on its 12-point peace plan. Kiev considers Beijing very close to Moscow and therefore does not see it as a mediator. But sooner or later the conflict may reach an impasse, when Chinese mediation becomes a reality anyway, because Russia no longer wants to see the West in that role.
In any case, the Beijing agreement shows that countries in the global South no longer need to rely on some form of Western intervention to solve their problems. In this regard, China is following the path opened by Russia. It is Moscow that has sought to play the role of a universal mediator in the Middle East in the last decade. For example, Russia together with Turkey and Iran came up with the Astana format and through this format tried to solve the Syrian crisis without the participation of the West.
It seems that China will now try to establish its own “Beijing format”. For example, Chinese President Xi Jinping has already offered the Gulf states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE) and Iran to hold a summit in Beijing this year. This will be the first summit of its kind.
Therefore, the Russian media may have been prematurely happy with the change in the role of leadership in the Middle East. China is not an ally of Russia in this region, but rather an alternative (pretending to take its place). Middle Eastern countries are really disillusioned with the policies of the US and Europe and no longer expect external mediation from the West. But due to the war against Ukraine, the influence of the Russian Federation has also decreased significantly. And this is happening at a time when the Middle East is becoming an increasingly important region for Russia, due to growing isolation and economic difficulties in the West. The countries of the Middle East understand very well how much their positions have been strengthened in relations with Moscow.
China’s financial and technical capabilities are much higher than Russia’s. However, until recently, Beijing has limited itself to economic expansion in the Middle East region and avoided direct political participation in the processes in the region. Now the positions of the US and Russia have weakened, so the PRC can fill the gaps that have appeared. China has a lot to offer Middle Eastern countries in the military-technical sphere, and has begun to offer.
A recent article by The Wall Street Journal that the Iranians agreed to Chinese mediation on the condition that Beijing help restore the nuclear deal may add to Moscow’s concerns. Russia believes that this agreement does not serve its interests. Senior Russian diplomats have told reporters on condition of anonymity that lifting sanctions on Iran and increasing hydrocarbon exports is no longer beneficial for Russia.
For now, China is unlikely to save the nuclear deal. However, it is an important fact to address him with such a request. This shows that there is a serious demand for an alternative force in solving problems that are not only relevant to the Middle East region. And such an approach should at least alert both Washington and Moscow.