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Source: Daily Sabah

May 16, 2023

Iran-Saudi deal and its geopolitical connotations


In a shifting Middle East landscape, the surprising Iran-Saudi Arabia truce, brokered by China, marks a significant diplomatic development alongside Qatar's blockade end, Türkiye's normalization and Syria's potential Arab League reinstatement

Over the years, a new wave of reconciliation and rapprochement are being witnessed among the archrivals across the Middle East.

The region tormented by more than a decade of violence and chaos involving militias, proxies, and both internal and external military assaults now seems in search of a new polity after the not-so-early realization that past geopolitical, diplomatic ad hocism merely exposed the power limitation, political ineptness and fragility of state systems in the region.

Amid the major geopolitical alterations represented by the Abraham Accord, the end of Qatar’s blockade, Türkiye’s all-out normalization process, and an imminent reinstatement of Syria in the Arab League, what came as a startling diplomatic exercise was the signing of the Iran-Saudi Arabia truce to restore diplomatic ties under the auspices of China on March 10, 2023.

Under this deal, both countries would open missions and consulates in each other's capitals soon and high-level visits from both sides is likely to follow. Both sides have promised to resume past security pacts and revisit agreements on trade and technology. This deadlock ended after almost seven years of diplomatic impasse while both sides had decades of engagement through their proxies and militias in different parts of the region.

Arab commentators view the "Beijing Agreement," as it is called in media parlance, as a gateway to new history in the region and many have compared it to the Elysee Agreement signed between France and West Germany in 1963 which ended the worst part of war history in Europe.

The China-mediated agreement has proved that the world is beyond conflicts and grudges, and all conflict later or sooner leads to peace alone. It is also expected that this deal can usher into a new era of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-Iran relationship and other GCC member countries might rush to elevate its own ties with Iran.

Truce manifests shifting geopolitics

The deal can neither be seen only as an extension of ongoing strategic regional readjustment nor in complete isolation but certainly, it reflects changing regional and global strategic templates.

The China-mediated peace deal does not represent a growing urge of China to diversify its role in the region alone but also an explicit sign of diminishing U.S. appetite in the Middle East because of its growing disillusionment with the emerging new polity and perhaps its own deliberate preference for a shift in its strategic pivot.

The past efforts by Oman and Iraq in 2021-2022 to make both sides sit across the table are no more a secret but they perhaps failed to offer anything tangible because of their inability, as a small-size power to ensure the sustenance of the deal or exert pressure in case any of the parties drifts or deviates from the core principals of the deal.

China is more capable to prevail over both if such a situation arises because of its higher economic and political leverages. Moreover, China is no more only an economic actor there and in the recent past has diversified its imprints and has sighed mega deals with both Iran and Saudi Arabia.

This mediation effort by China is likely to deepen and widen its template of engagement in the region and the country already seems in pursuit of a new blueprint, which of course would be devoid of U.S.-like designs or objectives.

The U.S. growing perplexity in the region was evident for a long but it became more obvious over the last few years when it started asking the regimes in the Middle East to take care of its own security and demonstrated all apathy toward its core allies when their oil installations and other strategic sites were allegedly targeted by Iran in 2019.

What further incensed Iran was the cancellation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and U.S. President Joe Biden’s aggressive anti-Saudi rhetoric during his election campaign and his early days in the White House embittered Saudi Arabia.

The prospect of a new security milieu and the growing signs of U.S. disengagement might have impelled Saudi Arabia to revisit its past policy and work for the creation of a tension-freer region.From Saudi’s perspective, the deal is a sign of a shift from politics for the sake of focus on economic realms in accordance with its Vision 2030, which by all means requires a stable region.

For Iran, on the other hand, this deal seems a step further toward strengthening its bond with both Russia and China, which are posing a new set of challenges to its old foe – the United States – and both are also bent on changing the hitherto U.S.-led global order.

Regionally, the deal might deter the prospect of growing proximity between Saudi Arabia and Israel whose current Prime Minister Netanyahu imagines Iran as a part of his personal crusade.Increased diplomatic efforts between Iran and Saudi Arabia could potentially undermine Israel's motivation to build an anti-Iran alliance in the region.

Success breeds success, and there is a possibility that Saudi Arabia could even play a role as a mediator in future negotiations between Iran and the U.S.

Bad deal is worse than no deal

While it is important to approach negotiations with honesty, it is equally crucial to recognize that a bad deal is worse than no deal. Therefore, it would be shortsighted to harbor optimism or enthusiasm at this stage.

There is a long way to go before the objective of the deal is accomplished, even partially, as many of the regional issues are directly linked to old Iran-Saudi discord.Instead of content or the scope of the deal, one needs to wait to see if the accord would bring peaceful political order in war-torn Yemen or if the promised peace would ensure the security and safety of oil and other strategic installations across the region or halt the rocket attacks across different borders or Iraq and Lebanon would see the return of a new stable polity.

Until these issues are resolved, this deal would serve no purpose for the war-torn region. The success of the deal also depends upon Israel and one needs to see if the current hawkish policy of Israel and a deal could coexist, and if so, for how long, and if not, what would be the fate of the deal.

The U.S. has already expressed its pessimism and stated that it was not sure if the Iranians would honor their commitment. The biggest challenge is how the deal could be immunized to the obstacle ahead.There is no reason that the U.S. should not prefer a peaceful region but it would, in no way, like to see an enhanced role for China in the region.

Though China, no doubt, is making inroads in the Middle East rapidly but imagining China as replacing the U.S. as a security provider or peace guarantor would be a far-fetched conclusion and a China-mediated deal is not likely to rock the century-old U.S.-Saudi marriage.

Washington has seen the region not only evolving but has been an instrument in shaping the region into what it is today while China is still a new entrant.

Despite all these ifs and buts, the importance of the deal cannot be undermined when it comes to building trust or paving the way for the next step toward regional integration, and soon, there would be a mix of continuities and changes in the Saudi-Iran relationship.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Researcher at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), a foreign policy think tank based in New Delhi, Ph.D. of Middle Eastern Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University

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