After years of adversarial relations marked by proxy and asymmetrical wars, Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed to resume diplomatic relations and reestablish their embassies in each other's countries. The agreement followed talks in China between delegations led by Saudi national security adviser Musaad Al-Aiban and his Iranian counterpart Ali Shamkhani, sponsored by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Chinese negotiator Wang Yi brokered the deal.
Iran and Saudi Arabia affirmed respect for the sovereignty of states and non-interference in their internal affairs and agreed to enhance bilateral relations in multiple sectors. According to the agreement, Riyadh and Tehran also agreed to activate the security cooperation agreement signed in 2001 and the trade, economy, and investment agreement signed in 1998.
A déjà vu
This new deal gives us a sense of déjà vu, reminding us of the "Triangular Diplomacy" pursued by the Tang dynasty of China in the 7th and 8th centuries. During this time, China, the Persian Sassanian Empire, and the Arab Umayyad Caliphate were involved in a complex geopolitical situation. The three powers had different agendas and interests, and they were engaged in a struggle for power and influence in Central Asia and along the Silk Road trade routes. Just like Iran and Saudi Arabia today, the Sassanian Empire and the Umayyad Caliphate were rival powers in the Middle East, each seeking to expand their influence and secure their borders. Meanwhile, China was interested in maintaining peaceful relations with both powers and securing its economic interests in the region. The Tang dynasty pursued a strategy of "Triangular Diplomacy" to balance relations between both powers. China sent diplomatic missions to both the Sassanian Empire and the Umayyad Caliphate, seeking to establish good relations and foster economic cooperation.
The diplomatic missions resulted in increased cultural and economic exchanges between China and the two powers. They also facilitated the transfer of knowledge and technology, particularly in the areas of astronomy, medicine, and textiles. Additionally, the diplomatic missions helped to establish China as a major power in the region and cemented its reputation as a cultural and technological center. They also enabled the Tang dynasty to establish strategic alliances and facilitate trade along the Silk Road. It is cliché but appropriate to say: history repeats itself.
There are obvious implications of this deal that we can see on both the regional and international level.
The United States of America
The first response from the US was a statement that welcomes the deal. A National Security Council official claimed that: “De-escalation and diplomacy together with deterrence are key pillars of the policy President Biden outlined during his visit to the region last year.”
It is a weak way of concealing their failure. Having America’s number one foe mediate between an American ally and an American enemy is the kind of nightmare American diplomats would have. Now it is their reality.
In the Joint Trilateral Statement, Iran and Saudi Arabia thanked Iraq and Oman for hosting talks in 2021 and 2022 and thanked China for its efforts in conducting further meetings. However, the United States was missing from the official Saudi statement. This is much more than a small diplomatic detail, this is a representation of the new regional (and possibly global order): China's use of diplomacy has enabled it to extend its influence and global reach, and it has been able to capitalize on the US void and ambiguous policies.
The key features of the Biden administration policies are critical and cautious stances towards the kingdom while simultaneously emphasizing an “All Carrots, No Stick” policy vis a vis Iran. In other words, frequently halting arms sales to your ally while discussing deals and sanctions relief with your mutual enemy, weakens your relationship with your ally. The United States failed on proving itself as a good security provider by treating its partner like an adversary.
The United States may still have the preponderant military power in the gulf, but China is diplomatically influential and is portraying itself as a peacemaker. Both powers seek influence and are competing for it. China is making progress, and not only in the gulf. For example, the United States left Afghanistan after spending decades and billions of dollars in vain. China easily filled the gap because it doesn’t attach “morals and values” to its foreign policy. Moreover, autocracies prefer working with a partner that does not put pressure on human rights issues. In short, China is being perceived as a more reliable and less aggressive partner compared to the United States.
China's ascent to global power is like a pack of wolves on the hunt. They're coordinated and strategic, but they also have to be careful not to get too aggressive and alert their prey.
It is too early to assume it, but it is reasonable to mention the possibility of the deal being the cornerstone for the Petroyuan, and for both Iran and Saudi Arabia to be part of the BRICS. The new deal offers many rewarding possibilities for China other than good publicity.
Iran and Saudi Arabia
For the Islamic Republic of Iran, the deal can reduce its isolation and increase China's regional influence at the expense of the United States. The Iranian regime will portray the deal as a victory against the west.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is prioritizing its long-term development goals over conflicts. It is reconciling with regimes it once tried to overthrow and opening its security architecture to new partners. After the 2019 attack on Aramco, the kingdom understood it cannot count on the United States alone for its security. It is hoping the deal brokered by China can provide a shield and protection from Iranian aggression.
During the cold war, it was “either with us or against us”, but now Saudi Arabia is playing a completely different game: Aid pledge to Ukraine and visiting Russia, a deal with Iran while being open to Israeli normalization.
The other Pawns
The idea that the deal will bring peace to the Middle East because the tensions between Iran and Saudia Arabia are the drivers of instability is a fallacy. The situation won’t change overnight and prosperity is not guaranteed. Iran and Saudi Arabia are still sharing the Middle East but on Chinese terms.
In Yemen, the deal would likely mean more concessions to the Houthis. For Syria, the deal may accelerate the normalization of the Assad regime and its return to the Arab league. In Lebanon, the status quo will be maintained with a centrist president. In Israel, the deal was described by the former Israeli Prime minister Yair Lapid as “the collapse of a regional defense wall we started building against Iran”.
A deal is only as good as its implementation
It is still too early to draw conclusions and make predictions. The deal could be a short-term truce as there is no guarantee that any of the partners will respect the conditions agreed on. It will be crucial to keep an eye on how the godfather of the agreement will react when the deal is put to test and not respected. It will evaluate China’s skills in mediation. The art of a deal is not in the terms but in the delivery.
And it is important to remember that China’s rising power is not something to celebrate. A conversation with China’s neighbors can tell us why.