China breaks Iran-Saudi rapprochement
meT DEATH surprising enough to see two long-time enemies sitting together. On March 10, the national security advisers of Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to restore diplomatic relations after a seven-year break. What made the moment even more remarkable was the location: not a provincial capital, but Beijing. Seated between the two men was Wang Yi, the top diplomat of China, a country that had not been heavily involved in the messy diplomacy of the Middle East.
The agreement gives the countries two months to reopen their embassies and re-establish ties. As has always been the case in the Middle East, words are not actions: events could derail the rapprochement. Even if they follow through, this is a functional agreement, not a transformative one. Iran and Saudi Arabia will remain at daggers drawn.
China’s role is more interesting. A country that took a mercantilist view of the Middle East now seems comfortable entering its politics. But this, too, can be overdone. The agreement is a sign that both Saudi Arabia and Iran want to appease China, not that it is the new superpower of the region.
The diplomatic crisis dates back to 2016, when Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran after mobs attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad. The attacks followed the execution of Nimr al-Nimr, a dissident Shia cleric. Things only got worse from there. In 2019 Iranian-made drones hit oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, temporarily knocking out 6% of the world’s oil production.
The two countries have spent years talking about reconciliation – most recently with renewed crisis. Saudi Arabia’s priority is to get them out of its war in Yemen, which was launched in 2015 after the Houthis, a Shia rebel group, seized much of the country. Eight years and hundreds of thousands of deaths later, they still control much of Yemen. If the war has achieved one thing, it has been pushing the Houthis closer to Iran. The mullahs are now providing weapons, money and training to the Houthis.
The Saudis are keen to reach an agreement with the Houthis that would leave the group in power in exchange for their agreement to end cross-border missile and drone attacks. For months they have been asking Iran to push the Houthis to accept it. So the Saudi-Iranian agreement could establish a separate agreement in Yemen. That will not end the conflict, which was a civil war before the Saudi-led coalition intervened. But it would give the kingdom a face-saving exit.
The deal could also affect Iran International, a satellite TV channel founded in London in 2017 that broadcasts relentless criticism of the Iranian regime. The heads of the channel deny any direct links to the Saudi government. Despite this, the Iranian government has requested that Saudi Arabia keep the channel in.
These calls became more intense when protests swept Iran in September. The Iranian regime also began threatening journalists working for Iran International, prompting the British police to offer them round-the-clock protection. Last month the channel announced that they will move their broadcasts to Washington.
None of this indicates an era of friendship between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Their ideological disputes date back to Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979. The Saudis remain concerned about Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and its network of proxies in Arab states. Iran, for its part, will continue to see the Saudi hand in the (self-inflicted) domestic unrest.
However, the agreement could reduce the chances of a cold war becoming hot. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) reached a similar conclusion. Last year he restored full relations with Iran, after they downgraded them following the attack on Saudi missions in 2016. UAE prompted by last year’s drone attacks on Abu Dhabi, its capital, and concern that it could face retaliation for a possible Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
In Washington, all these points can be secondary. The focus will be on the country that broke the agreement, not the countries involved. “Seeing China’s role here will not warm any hearts in Washington,” tweeted Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace Policy, a think tank. It will also be a resource for Republicans who want to argue that President Joe Biden’s policy in the Middle East is failing.
This is an undeniable trend in the Chinese space. In 2021, Mr. Wang proposed a “five-point plan” for peace in the Middle East, full of banal slogans like “claiming mutual respect” and “maintaining equality and justice”. Those empty words were the extent of Chinese diplomacy in the region. Now China has taken a much more public role.
Nevertheless, the graves are in order. Much of the diplomacy took place not in China but in Iraq and Oman, with American encouragement. China only helped push the deal over the finish line. And it’s hard to see how China can repeat the trick. He has really dipped his toe into the quagmire of Israeli-Palestinian peace, but no one expects him to go much further.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have good reason to be involved with China. In 2021 the Iranians signed a 25-year “strategic partnership” with China. Ebrahim Raisi, the hard-line president, wants his countrymen to think that economic ties with the Middle Kingdom are replacing relations with the West. As for the Saudis, they hosted Xi Jinping at a summit in December. China is their largest trading partner and the largest buyer of oil in the world. After two years of frozen relations with Mr. Biden, it does not hurt to remind the Americans that the kingdom has other powerful allies.
Everyone benefits – at least a little. Saudi Arabia can ease tensions with a ruthless neighbor. Iran’s conservative regime may be open to diplomacy. China can claim diplomatic victory. But the fundamental issues have not changed: this agreement is more about perception than reality. ■