Iran-Saudi Reconciliation: A Hope for the Region?

States with shared culture, beliefs and borders cannot stay apart from the each other for too long. They have to resolve their disputes to coexist peacefully. Otherwise, both of them would pose a security dilemma if there are several flash points which can trigger a crisis between the two. States always tend to mitigate their threats by either seeking conciliation or eliminating it altogether. And if this threat comes from a strong state, it is really a problem for the other. 

The Saudi-Iran relation somewhat depicts this picture. The deal in Beijing between the two is regarded as a breakthrough in the so-called Middle East as they have been engaged in a fierce competition for regional superiority. The preceding events after the deal cannot be foretold. However, it is anticipated that this conciliation is a harbinger of regional stability, peace, and security. 

Both states have agreed, under the deal, to open up their embassies, restore formal diplomatic communication and reinvigorate their agreements of 1998 and 2001 concerning economic cooperation and security. The deal was made possible as the early ground was provided by Iraq. Damascus encouraged the back channeling that was underway for nearly two years. Later, it was due to Chinese intervention that both sides have been able to reach a point of concurrence where both agreed to resuscitate their ties. 

The US was nowhere to be seen, which was once considered a major mediator in middle eastern diplomacy. 

The Iran-Saudi relationship severed when the latter executed in 2016 Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr who was a severe critic of the Saudi government. His execution was among other 47 people who were accused of inciting terror in the Saudi eastern province — the mass protests against the kingdom in 2011.

Moreover, Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a competition of gaining the upper hand in the region. Two different schools of thought — Iran supporting Shia and the kingdom supporting Sunni — have been endeavoring for decades to support their respective groups against the other. They have been doing so by engaging proxies in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. 

The major threat perceived by the Saudis is Yemen in which Iran has been supporting the Houthis there to establish control. Houthis have also been carrying drone and missile attacks on Saudi territory and its oil giant Aramco, posing a major security threat to the kingdom and global oil supplies, an edge to Iran in the proxy war against the Kingdom.

Their proxy wars claimed numerous lives destroying the whole cities. It also led to the weak control of the governments which provided a ground to the terrorist organizations such as ISIS to launch their operations and contribute to ransacking the regional order. In Yemen, UN has declared that the war in the country has triggered the severe humanitarian crisis. Similar situation is prevalent in Syria – exacerbated by the earthquake. 

The so-called Arab Spring of 2011 — the mass pro-democracy protests — spread unrest throughout the region creating popular uprisings in non-democratic Arab states. Syrian government survived but the cost it paid was high. Some states succumbed to it and became the battleground of the non state actors. Amid turmoil, the interference of the foreign countries further complicated the matters creating chain of overlapping issues in the region.

However, Tehran and the kingdom, exhausted by the proxies and insecurities decided to resolve the issues. In Iraq, by 2022, both sides had held five rounds of talks. As after Xi Jinping visited Riyad in December last year, he was told to assume the role of mediator and eventually Tehran and Riyadh agreed to the Chinese arbitration and then began the process of engagement. 

The final settlement was reached on March 10 in the trilateral meeting when the SNSC secretary Shamkhani and Saudi National security advisor Musaed Bin Mohammed al Aiban went to Beijing and met the Chinese state councilor and former foreign minister Wang Yi to announce the deal. 

During the meeting, Wang Yi noted that “this world has more than just the Ukraine question and there are still many issues affecting peace and people’s lives.” This was a very strong statement by Chinese official as Beijing has been proactive to make Asia a coherent region akin to Europe, brushing aside the Western media’s focus on only highlighting the Ukraine issue as a major threat to the world’s peace and security. This statement highlights the Western media’s bias against the non-European disputes all around the world. West covers narrates its issues to the world as if their problems are only people should worry about. 

The Chinese mediation has established its position as an honest mediator. This deal also came as China offered arbitration between Ukraine and Russia. The recent Chinese role asserted that the countries all around the world can trust in China as an honest middle person to which states can reach out to. It brought China in the axis of global diplomacy. Chinese Wang Yi said “As a good-faith and reliable mediator, China has faithfully fulfilled its duties as the host.” It is a signal that says China is ready to bring disputed states on negotiations table.

In the joint trilateral statement, the three parties expressed their willingness to make “every effort” to strengthen international and regional peace and security. 

Though this deal does not, as the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, said, “has resolved all the other outstanding differences between the two countries.” However, both sides have shown eagerness to also address other issues by taking this first step. The minister also noted that “the deal served as evidence of our mutual desire to resolve [the differences] through communication and dialogue, through peaceful ways and diplomatic instruments.”

Saudi Arabia has concerns about the Iranian nuclear program. Though nuclear weapons provide security, it naturally creates a dilemma as said. Absolute security for one state naturally translates into absolute insecurity of the other state, inferences which we can draw from pre-world war 1 and the Cold war events. If Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, such a dilemma would be created for Saudis which will also build its nuclear program. 

To limit Iranian ambitions, UN’s P-5 +1 (permanent members of security council plus Germany) signed a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This was called off in 2018 by the then US president Donald Trump sanctioning Iran. Tehran in response accelerated its efforts for uranium enrichment. Indeed, the Saudi-Iran détente will also encourage both sides to discuss their security concerns and ease the dilemma with special emphasis to Iranian nuclear ambition. 

Having said all the possible benefits it may bring about, the deep mistrust would not fade as it is strengthened by conduct of both states against the other. Tehran’s concerns with Israel and the Arab countries rally to mend ties with Tel Aviv may hinder the cooperation. The religious differences will also persist and the relations, it is thought, will be taken forward cautiously. Riyadh would also keep the US sanctions on Iran in mind while moving forward. Nevertheless, this deal is a great leap forward for the region. It also gives the sense of changing global allegiances and preferences substituting the old ones – China-Russia substituting US. 

The deal corroborates the commitment of both parties to regional stability and security. Were the Iranians and Saudis not ready to address their mutual concerns it would not have been possible that any mediator could bring them to the table. It is always the will of those who wish to address and resolve their disputes. 

There are some reasons why China has been successful in seeking conciliation. Beijing enjoys cordial relations with both Middle Eastern countries. For them, China has been proven a most trusted and reliable partner. Chinese president Xi Jinping when he visited Riyadh was given a very warm welcome with a purple carpet rolled out for him. He visited the kingdom after six years. Both closed the 34 energy and investment accords and vowed to deepen the ties further. China would have access to energy resources for its growing oil demand at home. 

Saudi Arabia is China’s largest trading partner with bilateral trade worth $87.3 billion. China also imports 18% of oil from the Kingdom with imports totaling 87.56 million tonnes, worth $43.9 billion, according to data from Chinese customs. The data shows the importance Saudi Arabia attaches with China.

With regard to Iran, China is also its top trading partner with prospects of trade growing further in the future. The visit of Ebrahim Raisi was the first in 20 years to China in which both signed the trade and investment deals in which the center of attention is to “finalize operational mechanisms” of the 25-year comprehensive cooperation agreement signed in 2021. The data also reveals why Iran has accepted the China’s offer to mediate.

Chinese mediation has set an example that with help of strong mediation in a crisis, with the willingness of parties, dispute resolution is not far from sight. Diplomacy arguably wins provided there is determination. 

Saudi Arabia and Iran must not allow any third party to derail their much-needed rapprochement. They should remain engaged with each other on all levels. They should cease the proxy activities and contribute to the development of conflict zones. Communication should be maintained at all costs. There is always a possibility of deterioration but fixing the damage should not be a problem. All the damages can be contained with the help of active diplomacy.

[Photo by Tasnim News Agency]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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