What does the Beijing-brokered Saudi-Iran deal mean for the Middle East and the world?

Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban shakes hands with the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani, as Wang Yi, China's most senior diplomat, looks on. (Photo: Xinhua/Luo Xiaoguang)

By Steve Bell

The agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic relations is to be greatly welcomed.

Diplomatic relations broke down in January 2016, when Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. This followed the Saudi regime’s execution of prominent Shi’ite cleric, Sheikh Nimr Bagir al-Nimr.

There have been serious attempts to resolve the breakdown. The Iraqi government has facilitated five rounds of talks since April 2021, and the Omani regime has also been helping.

The breakthrough came in Beijing, where five days of negotiation, hosted and assisted by the Chinese government, resulted in success.

The agreement resumes diplomatic relations, with embassies and missions to reopen within two months. It respects the sovereignty of states and pledges non-interference in national affairs of state.

The ministers of foreign affairs will meet to arrange the return of ambassadors and discuss means of enhancing bilateral ties.

Both sides agreed to implement a previously signed co-operation agreement of 1998 and a security co-operation agreement signed in 2001. These had been signed during the tenure of President Mohammad Khatami, but not effectively acted upon.

A snub to United States imperialism

The agreement is of great significance, as is the successful role of Chinese diplomacy. Until 1979, the regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia were the “twin pillars” of US strategy in west Asia and north Africa.

The Iranian revolution cost the US one pillar. Since that time, US policy has built up Saudi Arabia as a military and diplomatic power, including as the dominant force in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC).

This year, the Saudi regime has refused to co-operate with the US government sanctions against Russia. It has rejected US efforts to increase oil production by the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

President Joe Biden’s campaign pledge to turn the regime into a “pariah” comes at a cost, even when implemented half-heartedly.

Settling a key diplomatic conflict without reference to the US is certainly a snub. The Chinese mediation demonstrates the relative decline of US influence and the features of multipolar politics in the region.

The agreement has been widely welcomed regionally. The government in Baghdad now hopes for general regional detente that would allow for Iraq to be rebuilt.

Nabih Berri, speaker in the Lebanese Parliament, said that the “positive reading” of the news should prompt Lebanon’s politicians to “quickly” elect a president after months of deadlock.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry welcomed the deal as an “important step” that would boost regional stability. Hamas’s representative in Iran, Khaled al-Qaddumi, said: “This unity and accord is the desire of the nations of the region, and what political leaders should do is listen to the people’s wishes.”

A concern for imperialism

Of course, there are opponents. Both the Israeli government and the Israeli opposition are horrified. Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that this is “a serious and dangerous” development and a “fatal blow to the effort to create a regional alliance against the Islamic Republic.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed the previous government. Haaretz quoted him as saying: “The ones that accuse us should ask themselves how this happened on their watch, and how things advanced so far on their watch. Western and Israeli weakness leads to increased recognition of Iran.”

The attempt to build an Arab/Israeli front against Iran has been set back. Notably, on March 13, the Iranian government offered the Bahraini regime an opening to resume diplomatic relations which were also broken in 2016. If this transpires, then the value of the Abraham Accords further recedes.

The imperialist governments are putting a brave face on their response. The White House “welcomes” the deal but expressed doubts.

John Kirby, spokesperson for the National Security Council, said: “It really does remain to be seen whether the Iranians are going to honour their side of the deal. This is not a regime that typically honours its word” — said the representative of the state that unilaterally broke its commitment to the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA) with Iran.

The French government also welcomed the agreement, but urged Iran to renounce “destabilising actions.” Perhaps such as those of the French government which refused to protect EU trade with Iran after the US imposed illegal sanctions against Iran after leaving the JCPOA.

‘Realignment’ in the Middle East?

However privately furious the imperialist powers are, there is a general understanding of the significance of the deal.

The New York Times, on March 10, wrote that it “…could lead to a major realignment in the Middle East. It also represents a geopolitical challenge for the United States and a victory for China.”

Speculation has begun on how far the agreement will impact upon regional conflicts where the two states have supported different sides, such as Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

There are other important areas where the states have been pursuing different, if not immediately conflictual, policies — such as Palestine. If there is a stabilisation then certainly progress is likely in these areas.

The most widely assumed of these is Yemen. Some immediate initiatives are fuelling the debate. Talks between Ansarallah (the Houthis) and the Saudi-backed Presidential Leadership Council resumed in Geneva, overseen by the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

These were preceeded by Ansarallah releasing 117 prisoners ahead of Ramadan. The Geneva talks are concentrating on the implementation of a much larger prisoner exchange scheme, first agreed in Stockholm negotiations five years ago. Promising developments, but not yet a breakthrough.

The main problem is that the war is being pursued by an international coalition, backed by US and British imperialism. A national ceasefire has been in place for nearly a year.

This has reduced casualties, but some skirmishes and actions still occur, while civilians are still dying from previously scattered munitions.

There is no political initiative to advance an inclusive peace process centred on Yemeni parties and civil society.

The Saudi regime’s failure to secure a victory since 2015 means it likely now has limited aims. These would appear to be to secure its borders, and energy installations, from possible attack originating in Yemen.

Its main coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) appears to have more ambitious goals of permanent occupation. The UAE is running a number of Yemeni ports (a crucial industry in the UAE).

It is actively building military bases on Socotra island, and in the islands on the Bab el-Mandeb — apparently with Israeli involvement.

Equally, there is a difference between the Yemeni forces armed and sponsored by the coalition partners, which further complicates a solution.

The Saudi-backed forces, such as al-Islah, are committed to a unified Yemeni state. The UAE-backed forces, such as the Southern Transitional Council, favour a separate state for the south of Yemen.

The Iran and Saudi agreement creates goodwill which can be brought to bear. But a solution for the Yemeni people, which sees the siege lifted, the withdrawal of foreign forces and respect for Yemeni sovereignty, may be some way off yet.

A triumph for Chinese diplomacy

The contribution of China is an auspicious development. It has built up excellent relations with both parties — its “win-win” economic policies have allowed it to become the biggest trading partner for both countries. Its diplomatic policies of respect and non-interference have created confidence in its intentions.

The proposed meeting between the GCC states and China, in China later this year, can build upon this breakthrough.

China’s timely intervention has created an extraordinary precedent. The solution to a major inter-state conflict in the Gulf has been achieved with no reference to, or involvement of, the United States.

This despite these both being countries the US systematically monitors. This shows that differences in the global South are best handled by the countries of the global South.

Saudi oppositionist and scholar Madawi al-Rasheed writes in her A History of Saudi Arabia: “After the oil concession of 1933, Saudi Arabia became the first independent Arab state to develop important relations with the United States … Also, Saudi Arabia was the first area outside the western hemisphere where American political and strategic influence replaced that of Britain.”

For reasons of state, Saudi Arabia has passed over its old partner in a key diplomatic initiative. Nothing will be quite the same again.

China’s diplomacy has secured an agreement which foreshadows a new period of world history. One where the multipolar world is an undeniable fact, to the great benefit of the planet’s population.

The above article was originally published here by the Morning Star.