Med this Week – The China-brokered Saudi-Iran deal showcases a major change in the policies of the two Middle Eastern nations.
The China-brokered restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is one of the most relevant diplomatic developments in the Middle East region. Experts of the ISPI MED network react to this historic breakthrough.
Riyadh tries to use this emerging multipolar field “to its full advantage”
“Saudi Arabia’s agreement with Iran is not so surprising. The two countries have been in talks for some time, and both are interested in de-escalating some of their confrontation. Saudi Arabia has been curtailing their regional disagreements in favour of cooperation that will advance their domestic agenda. Social and economic transformation is their top priority. If this agreement succeeds in ending Iranian interventions within the Kingdom and discourages cross-border attacks from Yemen it would be a significant win for the Saudi leadership.
The major surprise is China’s role as the mediating power. This kind of diplomatic initiative marks an assumption of previously unseen responsibility for stability in the region and announces Beijing as a strategic player. It is unclear how Washington will react to this. In some ways, it opened the door with its demands for greater burden sharing. The Saudis are prepared to utilize this emerging multipolar field to the fullest. The Biden Administration’s view of this arrangement may hinge on how it impacts strategic alignments further afield – in Ukraine and with Russia, where Iran and perhaps China are entering the fray in opposition.”
Kristin Diwan, Senior Resident Scholar, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW)
Iran: a significant win for an administration under enormous domestic and international pressure
“Since one of the foreign policy goals of the Raisi administration was to prioritise regional relations, the agreement reached with Riyadh is undoubtedly a significant win for an administration as it faces enormous domestic and international pressure. Yet, the real impact that the normalisation of Saudi-Iranian relations will have on Iran’s regional policy remains to be seen. On the one hand, we are already witnessing positive spill over, for instance, in an initial dialogue attempt between the Islamic Republic and Bahrain – a sign that regional actors are keen to take advantage of a rare moment of constructive diplomacy in the region. Conversely, it is hard to imagine that Iran will abruptly and significantly reduce its support for its regional network of state and non-state actors. I doubt that the agreement will have a significant impact on Sino-Iranian relations. While there’s no doubt it a sign that Tehran and Beijing can constructively cooperate in regional diplomacy, the impediments that have limited the implementation of the China-Iran comprehensive strategic partnership remain unchanged.”
Jacopo Scita, Policy Fellow, Bourse and Bazaar Foundation; and Al-Sabah doctoral fellow, Durham University
In an increasingly volatile Gulf, China has filled the peacemaker vacuum
“China wants a balanced relationship with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, despite the fact its economic exchange has shifted more towards the Arab Gulf states while Iran has become more dependent. However, regardless of what China wants, the reality is that it has to contend with a Gulf region that has become increasingly volatile in recent years. China, therefore, benefits from any stability that can be reached through Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. But while it hosted them and their agreement, it’s unlikely that China will change course and become a more active peacemaker in the region. The Saudi-Iran agreement is the culmination of a process that was already underway, and that involved other parties. Yes, China’s Five Point Plan in 2021 specifically acknowledged that things needed to improve between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but arguably much of the hard work had already been done by Iraq and Oman.”
Guy Burton, Adjunct Professor, Vesalius College; and Visiting Fellow, Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianism Project, Lancaster University
According to Washington, China would be a bad bet for the Gulf
“American and Chinese interests in the Gulf overlap significantly. Both want the region to remain stable and its energy to be extracted uninterruptedly and shipped freely. However, given President Xi’s direction on Chinese foreign policy, we should anticipate that these interests will increasingly diverge. The primary factor affecting the region’s geopolitics is the widespread (though questionable) perception of a US withdrawal. China’s key diplomatic role with Riyadh and Tehran must be understood in that context, as Beijing made sure the announcement was timed to coincide with the start of President Xi’s third term. After many proclamations from Beijing arguing that it wasn’t seeking any political influence in the Middle East, we can see that such declarations were false. China has been increasing its regional political influence for decades, highlighted most recently by a visit from Xi to Riyadh in December and that by Iranian President Raisi to Beijing in February. The region should have never believed yesterday’s promises and shouldn’t believe those of today.”
William F. Wechsler, Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and Middle East Programs, Atlantic Council
Yemen won’t benefit from the Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement
“The resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is unlikely to have any significant impact on the Yemeni conflict. Since the truce ended last October, apart from minor clashes on the northern Yemeni border, fighting has been restricted to ground skirmishes between Yemeni forces. There have been no air strikes from the Saudi-led coalition on Yemeni targets, nor any Houthi drone or missile attacks on Saudi or Emirati territory. Most importantly, since last November, the Huthis and Saudis have engaged in direct, high-level negotiations, which are likely to end the conflict between them. This week’s visit by the UN Special Envoy to Tehran should be seen as an attempt to prevent the complete marginalisation of the internationally recognised government from this process. As the Huthis have asserted, they are independent agents and only listen to Iranian advice when it suits their own objectives.”
Helen Lachner, Visiting Fellow, ECFR
The rapprochement will complicate (but not compromise) Israel’s plans for the region
“The Saudi-Iranian agreement occurred amidst growing Israeli concern about Iran’s nuclear program and increasing preparation for a military option to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. While the deal is not directly related to Israel’s interests, it negatively affects its efforts to establish an anti-Iranian coalition in the region. At the same time, Riyadh’s decision to renew ties with Tehran is a severe blow to Israel’s efforts to increase international and regional pressure against Iran at a time when it was rising due to the deadlock in nuclear talks, the supply of drones to Russia, and suppression of domestic protests. Yet, the deal does not necessarily hinder any future normalisation between Riyadh and Israel – and probably won’t deter Israel from taking military actions in the future. Recognising that the relationship between Iran, the Gulf states, and Israel is not a zero-sum game, the agreement with Tehran won’t be an obstacle if Riyadh decides to normalise ties with Israel. In any case, the chances for normalisation appear slim due to tensions between Riyadh and Washington, the political crisis in Israel, and the current Israeli policy towards the Palestinians.”
Raz Zimmt, Research Fellow, INSS
This edition of the MED This Week has been edited by Francesco Schiavi