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Saudi-Iranian ‘normalisation’

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Saudi Arabia and Iran signed a pact on March 10, 2023, in Beijing, China, to re-establish diplomatic connections, respect one another’s sovereignty, and uphold non-interference in one another’s internal affairs. The parties were represented by their national security advisers. The pact also reaffirms two earlier agreements, including one on security cooperation inked in 2001 and another dating back to 1998 that deals with commercial, technological, scientific, and cultural connections. The seven-year diplomatic rift between the two Gulf neighbours is now over thanks to this accord. They have engaged in proxy wars against one another in Yemen and Syria, have waged intensely hostile media campaigns against one another, frequently on the basis of sect, and have occasionally threatened to engage in direct combat, most notably in 2019 when suspected Iranian agents allegedly attacked Saudi oil facilities.

A “success for discussion, a triumph for peace,” according to Wang Yi, the chairman of China’s foreign affairs ministry, who mediated the deal. The Saudi Foreign Minister claimed his government “favoured political solutions and discussion”, while his Iranian counterpart confirmed that his country was seeking “the preparation of additional regional moves”. West Asia has embraced the agreement.

Meetings between Saudi and Iranian officials took place in Muscat and Baghdad in 2021 and 2022, but it appears that little progress was made in resolving the disagreements between the two nations over the conflicts in Syria and Yemen and Saudi worries about Iran’s mobilisation of Shia communities in the region against the Arab states.

These exchanges, however, have demonstrated that the Arab governments were ready to advance their interests independently of the United States. This was partly due to growing regional scepticism of the United States as a security supplier and resounding warnings from Washington that it was less eager to serve as the region’s security guarantee. The U.S.’s military blunders in Afghanistan and Iraq contributed to its allies in the area losing faith in it.

Instead of breaking away from the United States, regional governments want to increase their alternatives and forge new alliances that serve their interests. China is a desirable business partner. China has strong linkages to West Asia in the areas of energy, trade, investment, and technology. It is the largest buyer of crude oil in the region, a significant trade and investment partner, and it is quickly growing its position as a technology supplier in most nations.

West Asia is also essential for the success of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with the region’s governments being critical for collaborations in investment, consulting, and contracting as well as for logistical connections. A stable regional environment is undoubtedly necessary for China’s interests, but up until recently, China had been hesitant to participate in regional rivalries and conflicts.

Chinese academics started to suggest a shift in this strategy about two years ago, saying that rather than focusing solely on its core security concerns, China was considering expanding its political engagement with the region based on “quasi­mediation diplomacy” to advance its broad commercial, diplomatic, and political interests. It acknowledged that many of the current conflicts would preclude rapid settlements. China was willing to settle for diplomatically resolving these differences in order to prevent a confrontation from escalating.

This was the message that President Xi Jinping conveyed to his Arab interlocutors during his three summits (bilateral, Gulf and Arab League) in Riyadh in December last year: the Chinese Foreign Office described the visit as “consolidating consensus on global governance, development, security and other crucial issues”. The first example of this new strategy is the Saudi-Iran deal.

The deal resolves the most severe regional conflict, lowers regional tensions, and establishes the framework for future discussions on fostering better ties and tackling divisive topics. Differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran will be challenging to overcome because of Saudi Arabia’s profound feeling of strategic vulnerability towards its northern neighbour and worries that Shia proxies may destabilise neighbouring states. To reassure its neighbour of its good intentions, Iran will need to take a more proactive role. This initiative would acquire legitimacy if China engaged actively with the two regional heavyweights.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a nuclear accord, and its related control of Israel’s aggression are also necessary for regional security. In early March, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi visited Tehran and secured an Iranian agreement to permit verification and monitoring activities by IAEA inspectors. This came shortly after the IAEA had declared it had observed signs of uranium enrichment by Iran to 84%, just shy of weapon-grade.

This has set the stage for new JCPOA negotiations, while there are still questions about whether the country’s bitterly divided domestic politics will support an agreement that would ease Iran sanctions in the lead-up to the American presidential elections. It is anticipated that Israel’s domestic politics, which are similarly sharply divided and dominated by the extreme right, would prevent the JCPOA from being renewed and retain a hostile attitude towards Iran.

China has stated that its involvement in West Asian politics is expected to become more active and significant, despite the fact that significant issues with this agreement still exist. The diplomatic efforts of India are hampered by this.

However, India will need to work with China in West Asia where they have a wide range of shared interests in energy security, free and open sea lanes, logistical connectivity, and, most importantly, regional stability. India will need to acknowledge that managing its relations with China remains its diplomatic priority. Here, they can cooperate to further their shared and local interests.

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