Iran and Saudi Arabia want to restore diplomatic relations after years of conflict. As a first step, the foreign ministers of the rival countries want to meet, as reported by the state news agencies of both countries. Accordingly, high-ranking government officials in China signed a corresponding agreement.
For the first time since diplomatic relations were broken off seven years ago, the King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulasis Al Saud, has invited Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to visit the capital Riyadh, tweeted the employee in the presidential office, Mohammad Jamshidi. A corresponding letter from the king had been received. Raisi welcomed the invitation, but the government in Riyadh initially did not comment on it.
Both countries also agreed to reopen the embassies within two months. Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia-majority Iran have not maintained diplomatic relations in recent years. Riyadh cut official ties with Tehran in January 2016 in response to an attack by Iranian protesters on the Saudi embassy in Iran. The protests were triggered by the execution of prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia. In recent years, the two states have also fought out their rivalry in military conflicts in the region, for example in Yemen.
These conflicts are mostly hung up on the question of religion. Saudi Arabia is the guardian of the Muslim holy sites Mecca and Medina and thus a leading Sunni power. The Islamic Republic of Iran as a Shia state goes back to an “Islamic Revolution” that earlier threatened the Muslim states with “exporting revolutions”. In truth, however, it is always about geostrategic competition, control of the waterway on the Persian Gulf, which is important for oil exports, and influence in the greater Muslim region.
At a meeting of foreign ministers, the establishment of trade relations and cooperation on security issues will be discussed. According to Iranian media reports, China played a key role as the host of the signing alongside Oman and Iraq as mediators. In view of Iran’s political isolation and international criticism, the Islamic Republic had been looking for new partners in Asia in recent years.
It was not the West, but the People’s Republic of China, that brokered this breakthrough in the perennial crisis area on the Persian Gulf. That explains why the western reactions are less than euphoric. The reason for the rapprochement is the internal and external pressure that the government in Tehran is undergoing, said the communications director of the US National Security Council, John Kirby. If the step helps to end the war in Yemen and that Saudi Arabia no longer has to defend itself against attacks instigated by Iran, the rapprochement is to be welcomed. The geostrategic big winner is China, the first big loser is Israel. Perhaps the most dramatic question remains how the deal will affect the nuclear dispute with Iran and increase the threat of nuclearization in the Middle East.
In Beijing itself, where negotiations had taken place between Tehran and Riyadh, the attitude was as immodest as it was exuberant. “This is a victory for dialogue, a victory for peace and important good news at a time of great turmoil in the world,” China’s top diplomat Wang Yi said, according to Reuter. Beijing, which had previously relied on trade, energy and other economic policy levers in the region, can claim a political success. Since the mutual relationship between the People’s Republic and the US is constantly deteriorating at the same time, the success of the negotiations must almost inevitably be seen as a milestone for China. This can first of all be explained by Washington’s consistent withdrawal from the Middle East for years. The milestones range from the unsuccessful end of the long-standing US mission in Iraq – the US invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein are just 20 years old – to the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021.
The geopolitical effects of the Chinese mediation success have so far been difficult to assess. It remains to be seen whether this is really a “tectonic power shift” in favor of Beijing and to the detriment of Washington. The steps toward reconciliation, from reopening embassies that have been closed for seven years to jointly creating security in the Gulf, are vague. The neighboring states, which live off the wealth of raw materials, have been fighting each other for years using open or covert proxy wars, whether in Yemen, Lebanon or Bahrain.
These developments are taking place against the background of US influence in the MENA region, which has been dwindling for years. Because of its oil reserves, Saudi Arabia was America’s “gas station” for decades and was under Washington’s protection. In the meantime, however, the Americans are no longer dependent on Saudi oil and are using their own energy reserves. The Saudis are now supplying the Chinese market and other Asian customers. Relations with Washington have continued to cool since Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman took power in 2017.
The West had not escaped the fact that Beijing was becoming an increasingly important trading partner. China’s head of state and party leader Xin Jinping raised more concerns when he visited Saudi King Salman in Riyadh in December and promised cooperation in expanding the civilian nuclear program in the country. Washington had always refused, because a civilian program can also form the basis for a military nuclear program. With recent diplomatic success, Beijing is now assuming a role that Washington previously seemed to have had an influential monopoly on – that of mediator and arbiter.
Beijing is thus becoming a power factor and a serious competition for the US in that region of the world where the Americans would rather hold back in favor of increased engagement in Asia, but which nevertheless remains extremely important economically and militarily. The interim balance at the large level of geopolitics is therefore: Washington wanted to concentrate on Asia because of China, but Beijing lands a successful counterattack precisely where the US cannot afford weaknesses – in the Middle East.
Against the background of the simultaneously growing fear of Iran becoming a nuclear power, Arab states such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are now seeking security by massively arming themselves. The UAE now has a very powerful army, and Saudi Arabia ranks eighth in the international armaments statistics.
The Gulf policy also includes the normalization efforts towards Israel, which the UAE and Bahrain have entered into through the “Abraham Accords”. Israel threatens Tehran with a military strike against the nuclear program and demands the support of a hesitant Washington. At the same time, the Gulf States are seeking diplomatic solutions in dealing with Iran. This now includes the “reconciliation” between Saudis and Iranians brokered by China.
The agreement could have far-reaching consequences in the region. Shia Iran and the Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which also houses the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, also have the largest oil reserves in the Middle East. At the same time, they face each other in numerous proxy conflicts. It is also unclear whether the announced normalization will lead to a real end to the Yemen war. In all these years, the Saudis have not mastered the Iran-equipped Houthi rebels, despite their modern armed forces, to end the war they started together with the UAE on their terms. The war has been going on for eight years, flaring up again and again despite all peace efforts. There have already been 377,000 victims.
The West has not yet lost the political poker game, but now has to deal with competition from China. Probably the clearest loser of the development is Israel, more precisely its new and old Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His country’s peace treaties with the Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco were made possible by the escalation of the nuclear conflict and Iran’s isolation. They were achievements of Netanyahu’s skillful diplomacy before he was voted out in 2021.
After forming a government with ultra-religious parties earlier this year, Netanyahu announced peace with Saudi Arabia as the next major foreign policy goal. If the guardians of Mecca and Medina then could recognize Israel, it would come very close to officially rehabilitating the Jewish state on behalf of the Muslim majority around the world.
Instead, the Saudis are establishing diplomatic relations with Iran, which is threatening Israel with annihilation. That doesn’t make it any more likely that Netanyahu will hit the biggest jackpot in Israeli foreign policy. Riyadh is less and less guided by the friend-foe lines that made peace with Israel logical. Washington commented on the agreement with the laconic remark that it supports any de-escalation in the region. Jerusalem has not yet commented.
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