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The Restoring Ties between Tehran and Riyadh: From Paper to Implementation

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The agreement between Tehran and Riyadh to normalize the relations between the two countries and “resuming diplomatic relations within two months and reopening their embassies and political representatives”, which was initiated by Chinese President Xi Jinping and was published in a surprising manner in Beijing, if implemented, it can undergo the security equations of the West Asian region and the Persian Gulf to a severe shock.

The Obvious question to start is why now?

The trend towards normalization of relations between the two countries began following the dialogue hosted by Iraq and followed by the Sultanate of Oman through the transmission of exchanged messages. This dialogue came to keep pace with the direction of the US administration, headed by Joe Biden, towards re-establishing the nuclear agreement with Iran. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have always called for adding regional issues to the agreement and including these countries in the talks. However, this did not materialize due to Iran’s refusal to link the nuclear talk to any other issue or to include new players who might add conditions and demands that would complicate the negotiation process. However, the suspension of the Vienna nuclear negotiations after the completion of the draft agreement due to a disagreement over some complementary elements, including Iran’s demand for guarantees that America will not leave the agreement in the future and to find a mechanism to verify the lifting of the American-Western blockade on it, contributed to the stopping of the Iranian-Saudi dialogue. This is because Saudi Arabia was synchronizing the steps of normalizing relations with Iran and the negotiations in Vienna, and this is reminiscent of what happened after the nuclear agreement in 2015 when Riyadh was preparing for talks with Iran, but it returned and stopped it in light of Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidency with a promise he made to cancel the nuclear agreement, and followed is Saudi Arabia’s welcome to Trump’s termination of the agreement and his launch in 2018 of a fierce sanctions campaign against Iran.

In addition, Saudi Arabia wanted a comprehensive agreement with Iran in the renewed dialogue in the last two years, which would restrict Iran’s presence and role in the region, at a time when Iran wanted to limit it to restoring diplomatic representation and normalizing relations between the two countries and leaving the discussion of regional files to other frameworks, especially since Iran refuses to be an agent for its allies in deciding their national affairs.

Recently, things have moved again for several reasons:

The success of the Iranian government and people in thwarting the bet on destabilizing it in the broad campaign led by people  supported arguably by the US and its allies to force the leadership of the Islamic Republic to submit. The emergence of a rapprochement between China and Saudi Arabia, represented by the visit of the Chinese president to Riyadh and the signing of partnership agreements between the two sides, and then the visit of the Iranian president to Beijing and the agreement to activate the strategic partnership agreement signed by the previous government during the era of President Rouhani.

Reassuring the Saudi Arabia that the United States is seriously seeking to sign a nuclear agreement with Iran, and that the references to that are countless, under the pretext that the agreement is in the interest of American national security and ensuring that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon after the rapid progress in its program. Here, Saudi Arabia did not want to appear to be lagging behind.

There was a divergence between the democratic administration in Washington and the Saudi leadership over their supposed roles in supporting each other, and this was recently reflected in Saudi Arabia’s position not to respond to Washington’s request to condemn Russia and increase oil production to meet the demand for it in the United States.

Saudi Arabia is increasingly devoted to providing the appropriate environment for the implementation of Vision 20-30, and this requires developing the truce in Yemen into permanent stability, and then – from its point of view – involving Iran in putting pressure on “Ansar Allah”, at a time when Tehran considers that there is no way out. From recognizing the role of “Ansar Allah” in determining the future of Yemen, along with other Yemeni components.

The Second inevitabl question is Why in China?

Over the past years, China has been able to develop broad relations with many countries in the region, despite the intimidation campaign led by Washington to alienate these countries from the Chinese role under security pretexts or claiming that there are motives for hegemony so that the atmosphere remains clear for the United States in the region. Chinese successes are no longer confined to anti-American countries such as Iran, but extend to traditional allies of Washington such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which forged important economic, technological and armament relations with Beijing that aroused Washington’s ire. Turning east has become an imposed reality in one way or another, despite the fact that the United States formulated plans to establish a regional system that brings together the Gulf states and “Israel” and takes over its leadership from a distance, with the aim of focusing on the increasing confrontation with Russia and China, which are plans that the Gulf states interpreted as turning their backs on the allies.

China’s emerging position allowed it to play an acceptable conciliatory role between its two important partners, and it believes that ensuring its interests in the region depends to a large extent on stability arrangements between the active countries. In my estimation, the Saudi side wanted to “sell” the paper of understanding to restore relations with Iran to the Chinese mediator and not to the Iraqis, because it is betting on developing relations with China economically and militarily in the phase of reducing the American presence in the region, and it is also sending, in one way or another, a message of protest to the United States. And Riyadh wants to show that it has other options than absolute dependence on America. This perspective does not negate the fact that Saudi Arabia is currently negotiating with America to acquire the status of a major ally outside NATO, similar to other smaller Gulf states such as Qatar and Bahrain.

With this, China was able to hold on to both sides of the relationship with its two major partners from the middle, and moved away from previous Saudi bets in giving priority to relations with the Kingdom at the expense of Iran, especially after Saudi Arabia increased its oil exports to China and provided it with very large investment inducements. China has always shown that it is a rising international power keen to gain soft influence and does not practice politics in its arrogant sense in the Western style, and that it is interested in establishing relations with all actors in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Zionist entity and Turkey, and it is also interested in not losing Iran to the interest of India, which strengthens its relations. Economic and commercial transport links with Iran, especially through the port of Chabahar in southern Iran.

The announcement of the restoration of relations between Riyadh and Tehran would not have provoked shocking responses in Washington had it not been issued by Beijing and with Chinese mediation. that is, the return, in and of itself, was not excluded, and there was no American objection to the role of Iraq and Oman to restore the broken link between Riyadh and Tehran. However, the entry of the Chinese engineer into the line and his success in achieving a Middle Eastern breakthrough seemed to come at the expense of the declining American role in the region, and aroused astonishment and anxiety in Washington, which dealt with it as an event that might represent a regional-geopolitical turning point, and perhaps a historic one. Because of this size, it immediately occupied the headlines and sparked a flood of preliminary comments and readings that intersected in its interpretation when it was considered a Chinese target in the American goal, at a moment when the Biden administration was talking about the Chinese danger and mobilizing to weaken its influence in the world and to confront it in its Asian home and beyond.

In its first response, the administration seemed as if it was surprised by this development, despite saying that “Saudi Arabia has kept it informed about its dialogue with Iran,” according to White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, who added that it “supports any efforts to reduce tension in the region.” The generality of his words and his ambiguous wording – as he ignored the mention of China – indicates that the administration was surprised by the announcement. What is worse is that it embarrassed it in several respects and aspects that observers placed in the category of net American losses. Most notably, China has broken the unity of dependence in the region on the United States, whose policies have led to “vacuum and failure there.”  That is, Beijing, has known the ways to undermine this policy, as well as the entrances that lead to enabling it to address the region in a language that takes into account its sensitivities, and thus strengthens relations with it and trust in it.

China’s other gain is that it recorded the first successful diplomatic entry into the arena of international conflicts, especially the Middle East, by building this role on an approach to international relations that is based more on interests than on calculations and security guarantees. Thus, it gave the region an encouragement to diversify relations instead of relying on a single power, leaving space for the freedom of local decision-making and the primacy of its interests.

However, all of this depends on the steadfastness of the return of relations between Riyadh and Tehran, and whether this return is the title of a “coexistence” process between the two neighbors, or is it perhaps the result of a deal to resolve a crisis, even if an important one, such as the Yemen war. The backgrounds and facts outweigh the first possibility, given that the sponsor is a weighty international party that countries need until further notice. The Kingdom has worked in recent years, after strained relations with the administration of President Joe Biden, to weave in-depth relations with China as another option, if not as a final alternative. And Iran sought, through its partnership with Beijing, to break its isolation, which was achieved, albeit in part, by restoring its relations with the Kingdom. On these accounts, all three were winners.

Besides the administration, Israel was the biggest loser. It is believed that the Prime Minister of the incumbent government, Benjamin Netanyahu, has disappointed his bets on a normalization deal that has been repeated in recent days with Saudi Arabia. Some reports stated that the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs “refused” to comment on the return of Saudi-Iranian relations. A position that reflects the extent of the unease, as is the case in Washington; Although there were those who were quick to downplay the matter by considering it a development that would serve the administration in the sense that it would help “liberate it from the troubles of instability” in the region, thus allowing it to devote itself to its most important issues with China and Russia in the Ukraine war.

But it is an explanation closer to mitigating the impact of the shock, as the process seemed closer to an American failure in exchange for Chinese sophistication that achieved understanding between two opponents united by aversion, each for its own reasons and to varying degrees, from America.

China’s main goal for mediating between Tehran and Riyadh is to de-escalate the tension in a region that sees its peace and security as aligned with its strategic interests as the world’s largest energy importer and the largest exporter of goods to the West Asian region.

China is currently the largest buyer of Iran’s crude oil and also the largest foreign trade partner of Saudi Arabia, and more than 55 billion dollars out of the estimated 120 billion dollars of trade between the two countries this year is related to Saudi Arabia’s oil exports to China.

In this way, it seems that China has used its purchasing power in Tehran and Riyadh as a political lever in a situation and at a time when there was enough favorable ground between the two countries to enter into thematic negotiations.

Another factor that has left China’s hand free in advancing the discussed political initiative is the desire of the United States to gradually leave the West Asian region on the one hand, and thr Russia’s preoccupation with the Ukraine war and the reduction of Moscow’s attention to developing its presence and influence in the Persian Gulf region on the other hand.

What lies ahead 

There have been many reactions to the Iranian-Saudi agreement, most of which hope that it will lead to a broader rapprochement that would contribute to resolving several crises in the region, including Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. However, the differences that governed relations for four decades and were permeated – as Tehran sees it – Saudi bets on bullying the West to weaken Iran and contribute to the blockade measures imposed on it and destabilize it by supporting rebel groups, all of which left scars in relations that cannot be erased easily. On the other hand, the Saudi side wants Iran to commit itself not to play any competing regional role with it, and to refrain from providing support to the forces of the axis of resistance, and to let Riyadh exercise its leading role in influencing the policies of other countries. Iran considers this division unfair and unrealistic.

Therefore, the resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is not considered a quick entry point to warm relations, or to an agreement on regional issues around which a multilateral conflict revolves. But it is a necessary step for political communication between the two sides at the official level after an era of estrangement. This means that there will be no immediate reflection on the regional issues in dispute, but a door may be opened for an exchange of views on how to contain their repercussions, control their rhythm, and perhaps contribute later to finding settlements if conducive conditions are available. Tehran always stresses that it does not replace the allies in determining their national affairs and interests.