Having published a 12-point plan for peace in Ukraine and with reports president Xi Jinping could visit Moscow as soon as next week, China has certainly been flexing its diplomatic muscles in recent weeks. Nothing has made its push to portray itself as a global troubleshooter more than brokering the detente between the regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Beijing played a key role in the agreement on a preliminary deal to normalise relations, allowing China to burnish its reputation while allowing Iran and Saudi to reduce tensions with a major rival and focus on domestic affairs. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has vast plans to reboot the kingdom to make it an engine of global or at least regional hub of innovation and cultural dynamism. Saudi Arabia is investing in sports, entertainment, tourism and tech. The proxy conflict that Tehran and Riyadh as part of Yemen’s civil war, as well as the possibility of direct confrontation with Iran, show little sign of yielding substantial rewards.
Iran faces challenges from Israel, another rival, as well as the US and Europe amid the collapse of the nuclear agreement with those powers. There is also Tehran’s controversial decision to provide weapons to Russia that it has used against Ukraine. Additionally, it is facing mass protests by its own people, who have united in a movement that crosses regional and social lines and remains vital if mostly dormant.
The deal could ease tensions with the Gulf states and also stop the two attacking each other in the media, particularly over the protests in Iran. That will help Tehran focus on building up its devastated economy while facing off against Israel and the United States.
“A successful diversification of the kingdom’s economy will require luring massive amounts of foreign investment. This will only be realistic if Saudi Arabia has peace and stability at home and in its relations with neighbouring countries,” said Giorgio Cafiero, CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington research and consultancy firm.
“Lowering tensions with Riyadh and arriving at an arrangement… [toning] down its coverage of the upheaval inside Iran both serve the Islamic Republic’s interests as the regime continues dealing with a major legitimacy crisis at home.”
It is easy to forget how routine the deal itself actually is, given the broader implications for the region and China. Iran and Saudi Arabia have had full diplomatic ties far more frequently than they have not during the 44 years since radical Islamic clerics took power in Tehran and began efforts to export revolution to other Muslim nations. Hosting ambassadors has rarely prevented the two countries from sniping at each other or engaging in proxy wars. The US and Soviet Union maintained embassies in each other’s capitals even during the Cold War.
While the sectarian divide in the hostility between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran is often emphasised, religion has bound as well as divided the Arabian peninsula and Persian plateau for centuries. Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority eagerly seek out Iran’s pilgrimage sites and shrines. Iran’s pious Shia and Sunni Muslims see it as an obligation to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lifetime. Pilgrimage is a big business in the contemporary Middle East.
Diplomatic ties were broken in 2016, when Iranian extremist hardliners stormed Saudi diplomatic missions over Riyadh’s execution of a Shia cleric in a move that was meant in part to embarrass and hamstring the pragmatist elected government of then-president Hassan Rouhani.
Baghdad-hosted talks to restore relations began in 2021, then Oman took over as the venue. The exact deliberations behind the decision to have China mediate remain unclear. But Beijing is the biggest customer of oil from both Iran and Saudi Arabia, and thus has enormous economic clout. Among the world’s powers, there were not many choices for a guarantor of any detente. Iran would have nixed the possibility that the US or even the European Union. Saudi Arabia would have ruled out Russia for fear it would anger the US, UK and EU too much to give Moscow such a feather in its cap at a time when it is pursuing a war against Ukraine.
No doubt both Iran and Saudi Arabia knew handing Beijing such a symbolic diplomatic victory, without demanding China provide weapons or other support, would spook both Washington and Israel. The fact that diplomatic relations between the West and Beijing are less than rosy will not have gone unnoticed.
Tehran’s motivations need little explanation. It is a chance to rile Israel, while the hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, could claim that the country is not as isolated as it seems.
Saudi Arabia’s motivation is more complicated. Analysts suggest a shift has been afoot in Riyadh since 2019, when the administration of Donald Trump failed to respond to a suspected Iranian drone attack on the crucial Saudi Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq. “Saudi Arabia realised it had to replace its virtually monogamous relationship with the US with a more diversified portfolio of strategic partnerships. And China, UK, France, and Russia, all bring something to the table,” Ali Shihabi, a Saudi commentator, says.
By normalising relations with Tehran and even dangling the prospect of future business deals, Saudi Arabia neutralises the greatest security threat to the broader vision of the country. China may be the only country with economic and diplomatic clout to ensure Iran sticks to any agreement
“Neither the US nor Europe would have been able to be an honest broker between the two parties,” former Saudi intelligence chief Turki Al-Faisal told Agence France Presse on Wednesday.
“China brings weight with Iran, and hence its signature to the tripartite agreement gave the agreement substance,” says Shihabi. “This allowed Saudi Arabia to take an agreement with Iran seriously when Iran had broken all previous bilateral agreements. If Iran undertakes any hostile action, direct or through proxies, then it will have made China lose face.”
As for Israel, which has consistently tried to isolate Iran – and sees it as a major security threat — the deal complicates its aim to get Saudi Arabia to join its efforts to confront Tehran.
But some analysts say Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council are terrified of bearing the economic and security costs of any possible Israeli attack on Iran, and may be rushing to patch up relations Tehran. Bahrain is reportedly the latest Gulf nation to try and smooth relations with Iran, which were also severed in 2016.
“I can tell you that GCC countries, including the UAE, are very nervous about this Israeli government and its behaviour toward Iran,” says Cafiero. “They are worried that their security will be jeopardised because of actions Israel takes.”