The news that Iran and Saudi Arabia will restore relations, a deal brokered by China no less, has set tongues wagging. But is this a revolutionary development for the Middle East or an evolution? It depends on where you stand.
For Israel and the US, it is unquestionably a depressing development. Both had high hopes that Saudi Arabia would soon join their anti-Iran coalition, comprised of a few Arab states who have formally recognized Israel as part of the so-called Abraham Accords and others who tacitly conduct relations with Israel – as Saudi Arabia has done for some time. Though cloaked in high-sounding rhetoric about a new beginning for the Middle East, this process has had the containment of Iran as one of its primary aims from the start.
Saudi Arabia had shown signs of supporting this process. Though unwilling to formally recognize Israel until the Palestinian situation is resolved, Riyadh has long been concerned about Iran’s behaviour for fear of upsetting Saudi public opinion. The Saudis, therefore, have a long history of quietly talking to Israel and tacitly cooperating with the anti-Iran venture. Israeli PM Netanyahu and the US have recently made it a priority to encourage Saudi Arabia to join the process more formally.
But things have been rocky below the surface. The Netanyahu Government’s increasingly hardline policies towards the Palestinian issue have made it harder for Arab states considering the possibility of joining the process to do so. Even some states that are already formally in the process are expressing second thoughts as Israel increases settlements and further destroys the possibility of a two-state resolution to the Palestine-Israel conflict.
Meanwhile, the Saudi-US relationship has been difficult for some time, with the Biden Administration taking a dim view of Saudi policies on various fronts and the Saudis hitting back through calculated slights and insults.
Riyadh looked into the future and decided that it does not want to be pigeon-holed in a US-Israel-led box. Riyadh saw the chance to change the channel of its relations with Iran to avoid this. This does not mean Saudi Arabia won’t be open to relations with Israel. It means that the Saudis intend to go forward on their terms.
For the Iranians, the development is a way to fight the regional isolation the US and Israel seek to impose. An Embassy in Riyadh is an essential signal that Tehran is a diplomatic player in the region and a military/security one. It is particularly important when the legitimacy of the Iranian regime is under a cloud due to the ongoing protests and civil society unrest. Cozying up to China is a smart move when it looks like being the only global power able and willing to actively resist the US vision of the world order for many years to come.
But we should not be too hasty to imagine that the course that Riyadh and Tehran have set will inevitably endure. The two have been at loggerheads for many years. Their mutual suspicions and disputes are over religious and realpolitik issues and have expressed themselves in insults, tensions and proxy fighting throughout the region. They have restored diplomatic ties in the past, only to break them again. It remains to be seen if this rapprochement will last.
The role played by China is also interesting. American pundits and officials will wring their hands at the prospect of Beijing emerging as a major regional player. Maybe. Though the Chinese will undoubtedly claim all the credit they can for this diplomatic breakthrough, it remains to be seen if this portends the development of larger Chinese influence across the region or was a one-off achievement brought about by special circumstances.
The simple fact is that once Iran and the Saudis had decided to try to restore relations, they needed a place to go and talk. The Chinese were the only game in town. America would not play the broker role as it is desperately trying to isolate Iran, and no other Western country would do so. Russia is busy these days. China, which buys significant quantities of oil from Iran and the Saudis (and therefore would prefer that they have stable relations to keep the oil flowing), is famously unconcerned with lecturing people over human rights. It was a logical place to hold these talks.
This does not, however, necessarily make China the address for efforts to tackle the region’s other divisions and problems. Time will tell if the Chinese can play a more significant role in the region or even want to. Hosting quiet talks between officials from two countries who have decided they want to achieve a new course is one thing; getting into the messy weeds in complicated places like Yemen and Syria is quite another.
The Chinese may be more than happy to have achieved this specific thing and thereby deal a blow to US-Israeli designs for the region (while also securing their oil flow) and then leave the rest of the region to Washington to fail to sort out.
So, is this an evolution in regional affairs or a revolution? As Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai is reputed to have replied when asked in 1972 about the impact of the French Revolution on world history: “Too early to say.”