Fahad Ali analyses an important geostrategic change of Saudi Iranian deal
The enmity between the Saudi Iranian deal was long-drawn and had a historical background to it. The Arab and non-Arab difference exists for centuries and both these countries are known to be the epitome of this age-old adverse relationship. Both countries have been pursuing opposite course of policies and actions since more than seven decades as Saudi Arabia remains a staunch ally of America while Iran is a diehard enemy of the US since the last half a century. Moreover, both countries tried to become the leader of the Muslim world with the result that both countries fought a number of proxy wars in the Middle East. These efforts have deepened the sectarian divide between the Muslims as the Muslim world is divided between Sunnis and Shi’ites creating problems for both the communities. The mutual antipathy between both the states has also proved to be a consistent geo-strategic issue for the region they are located in. In the process Iran has suffered substantially more though Saudi Arabia has also borne the brunt of the adversity.
Overtime, however, the leadership of both the countries realised the futility of pursuing the exhausting course of animosity and it was noticed that since sometime the decidedly cool relations between the Saudis and Iranians warmed up a bit, with the reports emerging of friendly contacts. It was also reported that both sides were holding talks brokered by Iraq, though there was months-long gap since the last time representatives met. It was widely suggested that the peace process could move forward considerably if both re-established diplomatic ties that were snapped in 2016 when Riyadh executed vocal Saudi Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr despite tremendous internal and external pressure for granting him clemency. This act tremendously added to the enmity between Saudi Arabia and Iran that also spread over rest of the Muslim world.
The UAE and Kuwait, which usually work in tandem with the Saudis where Iran is concerned, had earlier this year re-established diplomatic relations. The fact is that Saudi Arabia and Iran cannot change their status as regional neighbours and need to work out a way of living with each other and respecting each other’s red lines. It was also commented that a Saudi-Iranian détente could bring peace to Yemen along with helping stabilise Lebanon and Iraq, as both countries exercised influence in these countries, while intra-Muslim relations would also benefit greatly from improved ties between the two.
Despite these contacts when the news of a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic ties came as a surprise to the western world particularly America that was intrigued about the manifest Chinese efforts that went into achieving this breakthrough. Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to re-establish relations after seven years of hostility that had threatened stability and security in the Gulf and helped fuel conflicts in the Middle East from Yemen to Syria. The deal was announced after four days of previously undisclosed talks in Beijing between top security officials from the two rival Middle East powers. This deal marks the end of almost a state of war between the two countries as Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for missile and drone attacks on the kingdoms oil facilities in 2019 as well as attacks on tankers in Gulf waters. Iran denied the charges. On the other hand, Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement has often carried out cross-border missile and drone attacks into Saudi Arabia, which has led a coalition fighting the Houthis, and in 2022 extended the strikes to the United Arab Emirates.
The obvious interest of the global community in this respect pertains to a possible path to rein in Tehran’s nuclear program and a chance to cement a ceasefire in Yemen. Many observers are inferring that development signifies the diminishing American role in the region and this is considered a significant strategic shift. With the possibility of China stepping into the possible void created by the fast-receding American presence there could plenty of possibilities that may emerge in near-future. To many observers this breakthrough may spell a vicious race of influence peddling in the region that is already known to be a global powder-keg positioned to explode. The region contains many flashpoints that flare-up into conflicts more often than not causing ripples globally.
The deal was announced after four days of previously undisclosed talks in Beijing between the Middle East rivals. The Biden administration was naturally anxious about the parleys though Saudi Arabia kept US officials informed of the talks with Iran. America nevertheless felt that omitting it from the entire process was detrimental to its interests particularly because it is engaged in a struggle with China. There is hardly any doubt that relations between the US and China have become extremely tense and contentious over issues ranging from trade to espionage and increasingly the two powers compete for influence in parts of the world far from their own borders.
Though the Biden administration downplayed China’s involvement in this development mentioning that it believes internal and external pressure, including effective Saudi deterrence against attacks from Iran or its proxies, ultimately brought Tehran to the table. However skeptics point out that China’s role, rather than the re-opening of embassies after six years, was the most significant aspect of the agreement. They point out that this role will be probably accurately interpreted as a set-back for the Biden administration and as evidence that China’s power and credibility is growing.
Interestingly, the deal took place midst Iran accelerating its nuclear programme after two years of failed US attempts to revive a 2015 deal that aimed to stop Tehran producing a nuclear bomb. Those efforts have been complicated by a violent crackdown by Iranian authorities on protests and tough US sanctions on Tehran over accusations of human rights abuses. Still the US is reported to be offering a new possible pathway for reviving stalled talks on the Iran nuclear issue, with a potential partner in Riyadh. It is very clear that Saudi Arabia is deeply concerned about Iran’s nuclear programme and if this new opening between Iran and Saudi Arabia is going to be meaningful and impactful, it will have to address the concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme otherwise nothing much is not going to be of any consequence.
This deal also offers hope for more durable peace in Yemen, where a conflict sparked in 2014 has widely been seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. A UN-brokered truce agreed last April has largely held despite expiring in October without agreement between the parties to extend it.
The crux of all apprehensions is China’s involvement in brokering the deal that could have significant implications and it was unusual for China to act on its own to help broker a diplomatic deal in a dispute to which it was not a party. It is widely held that with this deal in bag China would not stay here as it could usher in Chinese mediation effort between Russia and Ukraine when Xi visits Moscow. It is however pointed out that the drawback is that at a time when Washington and Western partners are increasing pressure against Iran conversely Tehran will believe it can break its isolation and, given the Chinese role, draw on major-power cover. Chinese initiative nevertheless has raised many eyebrows as most western capitals view it with negativity and reject China’s portrayal of itself as peace-broker emphasising that China is not a responsible stakeholder and cannot be trusted as a fair or impartial mediator. TW