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Implications of Chinese-brokered rapprochement between Saudi Arabia, Iran

Mar 19,2023 - Last updated at Mar 19,2023

Last week, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations at a summit in Beijing. Track two diplomacy between the two countries started two years ago, when the former Iraqi prime minister Mustafa Al Kadimi played a major role in paving the way for meetings, and more recent meetings in Oman continued that backchannel engagement. So, the interesting part of the story is not necessarily the deal itself but the appearance of China as a mediator between the two parties.

This is not China’s first foray into the Middle Eastern scene; late last year the first China-Arab summit in Riyadh highlighted the Chinese strategy of engagement with Gulf countries to build a shared future in the new era. The pro-Gulf position adopted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who attended the summit, was clear in relation to Iran in the joint statement released by Saudi Arabia and China, where both sides agreed on the need to strengthen cooperation to ensure the peaceful nature of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme. They both called on Iran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, “maintain the non-proliferation regime, and emphasise respect for the principles of good-neighbourliness and non-interference in internal affairs of states”.

The Chinese also made statements across other issues in the region. On Yemen, the Chinese president commended the Saudi initiative to end the war and acknowledged its efforts and initiatives aimed at encouraging dialogue between Yemeni parties. On the UAE, he also affirmed full support for all peaceful efforts, including the initiative and endeavours of the UAE to reach a peaceful solution to the issue of the three islands.

These positions have played a major role in China gaining the trust of Gulf countries as an effective mediator that can put productive pressure on Iran. The timing is particularly important as Iran is suffering on all levels, economic, social and political, giving China more leverage to influence Iranian policies.

Iran’s major threat today is not coming from Saudi Arabia, but from Israel. Since the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal and sanctions being applied on Iran, the county has been suffering from a serious economic crisis. More recently, Iran’s involvement in the Ukraine war providing drones to Russia, has put more pressure on Iran from the EU, NATO and the US. This was on top of Iran’s violent response to local protests. Even those who believed in the need to return to the Iran nuclear deal found themselves in a difficult position defending Iran, and they have lost a lot of support at least in Europe. 

While for Saudi Arabia, it is obvious that the country is taking a new strategic approach based on avoiding direct conflict and focusing on diplomacy and internal development for future prosperity. Above all else, this requires stability suggesting the situation in Yemen is likely to settle down. These developments also suggest that both Iran and Saudi Arabia have no interest in maintaining an open conflict, including Iran which needs to reduce the risks of escalation from its neighbours, and make it more difficult for Israel to make the case for direct attacks on Iran.

The deal between the Saudis and the Iranians is a loss to Israel, which in recent years has built its new foreign policy on leveraging the threat of Iran to align with Arab countries that face the same threat from Iran. This rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran could make it more difficult for Israel to recruit Gulf countries to their campaign as the shared threat is being managed directly and diplomatically. While the deal may not change the security risks between Israel and Iran, there could be some political opportunity for reconciliation in theatres where the two powers are in conflict, including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

The appearance of the Chinese in a new political arena is novel as they have traditionally limited their engagement to economic cooperation. As security is the foundation of this deal, those involved from the Chinese side were also security experts as opposed to political or diplomatic. The US response to these developments will be watched closely. While they should support the outcome, they will be viewed suspiciously given that China was the broker of a security issue and it will cause concern around losing control of the security dominance in the region and globally.

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