China has pulled off a spectacular diplomatic surprise at a time when the United States and its NATO allies are sleepwalking into a third world war over Ukraine. Beijing brokered an unexpected rapprochement between the two Middle Eastern heavyweights, Saudi Arabia and Iran, who have long been engaged in proxy wars to undercut each other’s efforts for hegemony in a region fraught with a bruising turf war.
They have now agreed to restore full diplomatic relations broken off by Saudi Arabia following the ransacking of its embassy in Tehran by a vigilante mob over the execution of a dissident Shiite cleric Nimr el-Nimr in January 2016. The deal, officially named ‘Joint Trilateral Statement’, binds each side to “respect the principles of sovereignty and non-interference” in the other’s internal affairs. It also seeks to revive a moribund 2001 security cooperation accord, as well as a 1998 pact on trade, economy, and investment between them.
In a quick follow-up to the Beijing breakthrough, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz invited Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Riyadh which, according to Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, he has accepted.
Why it is significant?
The Gulf states, oil behemoths but military minnows, had scaled back relations with Tehran to appease their Arab big brother in 2016, though some of them have recently mended the ties. All of these monarchies, especially the UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait, have greeted the Saudi-Iran détente with optimism, as did Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey.
More importantly, the deal has been hailed by the Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Apparently, the Middle East is having an epiphany that war and conflict would only perpetuate instability in the region already wrecked by decades of turbulence spawned by the American imperialist approach.
The Iran-Saudi relationship has long been troubled by mutual distrust and acrimony as both vied for the leadership of the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia, a leading Sunni Muslim power, looks at Iran, a Shiite theocracy, as revisionist that sows chaos through the non-state proxies it controls in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, and seeks to export its ‘revolution’ to other Muslim states. Iran, on the other hand, considers Riyadh as a rival which has for decades sided with the United States and other Western powers hostile towards the Islamic Republic. For this reason, the two states have always found themselves in opposite camps in many of the region’s wars, especially the ongoing conflicts in Yemen and Syria.
What’s in it for Iran?
The China-negotiated deal offers a win-win for all.
If the détente truly holds, it could ease Iran’s diplomatic isolation triggered by the unilateral pullout by former US President Donald Trump from the 2015 nuclear accord and the reluctance of his successor, Joe Biden, to revive it and reengage with the Islamic Republic. Saudi Arabia could offer the much-needed cash injection into the Iranian economy whacked by years of debilitating Western sanctions.
Riyadh could also dial down criticism of the Iranian regime on the London-based Persian TV channel, Iran International, which it secretly funds and has become popular among liberal Iranian viewers worldwide. Moreover, the Saudis could disengage from the US-led proxy war to topple the Bashar Al-Asad regime in Syria and normalise the relationship with Damascus as its regional ally UAE has already done. Such de-escalation could also frustrate the US effort to cobble up an Israel-led security alliance of the regional countries against Iran.
What’s in it for the Saudis?
For Saudi Arabia, the single biggest gain from Iran rapprochement is possible extrication from the Yemen war which has become a ‘strategic failure’ and continues to drain the kingdom’s resources at a time when the reformist young would-be monarch Mohammed bin Salman is seeking to diversify the economy, reduce dependence on oil exports, and liberalise society as part of his ‘Vision 2030’ to make Saudi Arabia a regional financial hub for global businesses and tourism.
The brazen Houthis drone and missile strikes on targets deep inside the kingdom, including one on a Saudi Aramco refinery in Riyadh, in March 2022, highlighted the challenge to the Crown Prince’s ambitions. The success of ‘Vision 2030’ largely depends on an end to the expensive war in Yemen which, according to some estimates, has cost the Saudis $265 billion over the past seven years. Riyadh knows Iran can help. Tehran may nudge the Houthis into negotiating a peace deal with the Saudis to end the grueling war. The Saudis could also seek security guarantees from Iran that it would rein in its proxies and prevent them from stoking tensions in the volatile region.
But let’s be pragmatic. This deal would not solve the visceral mistrust between the two regional rivals overnight, but the fact that they have agreed to lower temperatures and solve their stubborn geopolitical problems step by step is a watershed development. And the mediator is also cognizant of this. “Make no mistake. One dialogue cannot solve all problems,” says Wang Di, the director-general at the Department of West Asian and North African Affairs in the Chinese Foreign Ministry. “We have noted that the [two] sides have expressed their willingness to improve their relations through dialogue and consultation,” he adds.
How China pulled off the feat?
The Saudi-Iran breakthrough is not entirely out of the blue. It followed much preparatory work. The Gulf monarchies have been increasingly chafed at America’s condescending diplomacy and whimsical Middle East policy, going from one extreme of Barack Obama’s ‘disengagement’ to the other of Donald Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran. These military minnows fretted that if the Saudi-Iran rivalry escalated into a full-blown regional conflict, they would be the most vulnerable to the military wrath of the Islamic Republic.
Perhaps it was this fear that prompted Iraq and Oman to mediate a Tehran-Riyadh icebreaker in April 2021. It was followed by several rounds of talks between intelligence, security, and diplomatic officials from the two states over the next two years. The process continued in fits and starts but yielded nothing tangible. Subsequent regional tensions stalled the process until China stepped in.
In early Dec 2022, President Xi Jinping travelled to Riyadh for the first-ever Chinese-Arab summit where Beijing reportedly offered its good offices to defuse tensions between the two regional powers. Saudi-Iranian contacts soon resumed as their foreign ministers exchanged niceties at the Baghdad Conference in Jordan, followed by more substantive conversations at the inauguration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in early January. A month later, China also discussed its plan to host a Riyadh-Tehran dialogue with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during his state visit to Beijing, the first by an Iranian leader in more than two decades.
What made China the ideal peacemaker was its equally excellent relationship with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Beijing has been Iran’s largest trade partner for more than a decade with their bilateral trade reaching almost $16 billion in 2022. The two countries have also signed a 25-year strategic agreement to strengthen economic and security cooperation. Similarly, Saudi Arabia and China signed a bonanza of agreements, including a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement, during President Xi’s visit to the kingdom in Dec 2022. Beijing is also Riyadh’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade worth a whopping $87.3 billion in 2021. Chinese exports to the kingdom reached $30.3 billion, while imports from Saudi Arabia totalled $57 billion.
The Chinese mediation is perfectly in line with President Xi’s ‘Global Security Initiative (GSI)’ which, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, aims to “eliminate the root causes of international conflicts, improve global security governance, encourage joint international efforts to bring more stability and certainty to a volatile and changing era, and promote durable peace and development in the world.” The core concepts of this vision include a commitment to respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, taking their legitimate security concerns seriously, and peacefully resolving disputes between countries through dialogue.
President Xi’s vision of peace through development by enhancing ‘shared security perceptions’ is in sharp contrast to the American ‘traditional security perception’ that focuses on forming exclusive military alliances to pursue security by defeating the enemy which leaves little room for non-alignment and sovereign decision-making as it coerces nations into taking sides in its divisive ‘Us vs Them’ approach. The US has developed a hegemonic playbook that it uses to stage regime changes, stoke regional disputes, and even directly launch wars under the guise of promoting democracy, freedom, and human rights, according to a report ‘US hegemony and its perils’ released by China’s Foreign Ministry in February. The US is obsessed with war because its ‘war economy’ survives and thrives on conflict while imperiling world peace.
What’s in it for China?
The United States has welcomed this proverbial game changer and expressed no overt concerns over China’s role in fence-mending between the two old foes. “…it is something that we worked on through our own effective combination of deterrence and diplomacy,” said White House national security spokesperson John Kirby in his knee-jerk reaction. Notwithstanding the guarded optimism, the US could be reading it as a sign of China’s growing influence in a region where Washington has for decades been an undisputed ‘guarantor of security’ for the oil-rich monarchies.
The US policymakers would construe the China-mandated deal as a message that Beijing is pursuing power projection in the Middle East as part of its global ambitions to challenge America’s so-called ‘rule-based world order’. They may also interpret it as a threat to the waning American influence in a region where China has always avoided taking sides in geopolitical and strategic conflicts despite its massive economic and financial interests. But Wang Di has sought to quash speculation that ‘selfish geopolitical interests’ pushed China to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh. “We do not seek any selfish interests or aim to fulfil the so-called vacuum,” he says.
The extraordinary diplomatic feat would reflect China’s role as a responsible ‘great power’ and Beijing may flaunt it as perfect manifestation of President Xi’s vision of “a community with a shared future of mankind.” The foreign minister, Wang Yi, has rightly described it as a “victory for dialogue and peace” as he said that Beijing would continue to “play a constructive role in addressing tough global issues”. Days later President Xi, on his visit to Moscow, unfurled a plan for a negotiated end to the Ukraine war, but sadly the US-led NATO warmongers would not listen to any voice of reason as they are obsessed with inflicting a “strategic defeat” on Russia no matter if it costs global peace.
The Saudi-Iran reconciliation is a truly transformational development that would not only help ease regional strain but would also contribute to global peace. This prestigious accomplishment of China warrants acknowledgement. If the longest-serving American war president, Barack Obama, could paradoxically be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, President Xi deserves it the most to enter the pantheon of laureates for potentially defusing a smoldering powder keg that could pulverise the entire Middle East.