The Saudi-Iranian agreement will remain the region’s most prominent development for a long time. China’s involvement in this thorny matter, which saw Beijing become a sponsor and guarantor of the agreement, adds to its significance.
The role China played affirms its growing influence in the region and its determination to ensure political and security stability as it vies to safeguard its immense economic interests in there, which does not imply that it will not have political and military interests in the future.
If the Chinese initiative is fated to succeed, even to achieve relative success, in cooling the hotbeds of tension (or some of them), strengthening neighborly relations, and ensuring that the agreement between the two rival countries is abided by, even to a minimal degree, then it would be considered an achievement that previous regional and foreign initiatives failed to realize.
There can be no doubt as to whether China has succeeded in solidifying its expansion on the Silk Road in the Gulf and the Middle East by highlighting its geostrategic and political dimensions. It has given us an early indication of the hallmarks of what might eventually be called Pax Sinica, along the lines of Pax Americana. This is the first time a major power other than the US unilaterally intervenes in the Middle East to contain a conflict since the Cold War ended.
China pounced on the opportunity presented by US policy failures, which allowed Russia to launch a military incursion into the region that has been ongoing and justified with shoddy pretexts since 2015. The US has also turned a blind eye to military attacks on its allies and partners in the region several times, refraining from retaliating in a manner commensurate with the attacks. This engendered feelings of disappointment, caution, and skepticism about Washington’s credibility and its commitment to its security guarantees to its Arab allies.
Beijing took advantage of Russia being embroiled in the war on Ukraine, the aloofness that seeped into Washington’s ties with its Arab partners, and vague and contradictory indications we see from the US from time to time that it intended to abandon the region.
While Iran’s isolation left it with no choice but to seek closer ties to China, Saudi Arabia has shrewdly diversified its alliances without giving up on its alliance with the US, though relations between the two countries have been turbulent. Here, we should mention the deal for 129 Boeing airplanes signed last week. Saudi Arabia also managed to place the political and moral onus on China to ensure a safe environment that facilitates the flow of goods along the Silk Road.
We do not need to elaborate on the Kingdom’s keenness on stability in the Middle East generally and the Arab Gulf particularly. Saudi Arabia is determined to turn them into economic, financial, touristic, and cultural hubs and eventually lead the region to an era of unprecedented progress.
In 2016, Vision 2030 was formulated with its three axes: “vibrant society,” “thriving economy,” and “ambitious nation.” All the projects launched within this framework reflect this desire: from the cross-border city of NEOM in the northwest of the Kingdom to the “world’s largest” entertainment, cultural and athletic city in the Qiddiya region, the Middle East Green Initiative, the Sakaka Solar Power Plant Project, etc… This Kingdom’s vision requires security, and ideally, Saudi Arabia would have no problems with anyone. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has immense economic projects that have impacted the lives of its citizens and contributed to achieving Vision 2030.
As for Iran, it has been sanctioned and blockaded since the 1979 revolution, which gave rise to severe economic and financial problems that fueled popular uprisings over political, social, and livelihood issues. The country is also under international pressure tied to its nuclear problem and its destabilizing actions in the region and beyond. It went as far as intervening in Europe, interfering in the Ukrainian war on the side of Russia.
Iran is now in need of a break and an opportunity to catch its breath, as Israel’s threats of attacks on its nuclear facilities are escalating. The country has seen bombings, arson attacks, and assassinations committed by perpetrators who remain unidentified. Tehran would not miss an opportunity to score points against the West, especially the US, and this agreement doubtlessly provides it with some much need protection.
Nonetheless, we should remind ourselves that Iran and Saudi Arabia should not be put in the same boat. For over forty years, Iran has been expanding in the region through sympathetic local communities. It has established militias that are now forming statelets in several countries. The influence it exerts in several Arab countries is evident. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is a normal country, just like others around the world. It has friendships, alliances and rivalries, but it does not form armed local militias like those linked to Tehran.
The agreement’s stipulation that both countries respect the sovereignty of states and avoid interfering in their domestic affairs concerns Iran. Respecting this clause, it would be no hyperbole to claim, is the bedrock of its success.
Being overly optimistic about the agreement would be going too far. Meanwhile, pessimism closes the door to history; it is the right course of action, either. In politics, issues cannot be seen in black and white. Nonetheless, objectivity demands that we list potential obstacles that this agreement may stumble upon. Two are particularly notable:
The first is how Iran will approach its nuclear program. The future of this program is among the most prominent points of contention between Tehran and the Kingdom. If the agreement is to allow Beijing to contain the countries’ disputes, it is crucial that China prevent Iran from enriching at increasingly high levels of purity, compelling it to only use the program for civilian goals.
On January 5, US State Department Spokesman Ned Price announced that Washington had removed reviving the nuclear deal from its agenda, saying the US would focus on confronting the military cooperation between Iran and Russia. Days before the agreement to restore diplomatic relations with Tehran was announced, Saudi Arabia reiterated its opposition to a nuclear agreement with Iran that does not address the concerns of the countries of the region.
All of these positions were made to ensure supreme national interests and safeguard national security, as well as regional and international security. Thus, they are unlikely to change once the rapprochement is eventually complete. If pressuring Iran to end its nuclear program is on Beijing’s agenda, this would stave off a calamitous state of affairs and deny Israel a pretext the reaction against which could destabilize the region.
In any case, it seems that Iran intends to reach the highest threshold below that needed to make nuclear weapons. In this event, would the agreement be nullified? Would Iran push Saudi Arabia, which has the will, determination, and capabilities, to become a nuclear power like Japan, South Korea and others?
The second obstacle is the future of Iran’s relationship with the local communities it has allied with across the region. The question, here, is about the extent to which Iran is willing to stop exporting its revolution and ideology, and to support nation-states and respect their sovereignty instead.
How likely is this, given that Iran sees its spheres of influence in some countries as its regime’s first line of defense? The answer depends on just how determined the deep state in Iran, represented by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is to make this agreement a success.
The Kingdom has always used the language of diplomacy and dialogue to resolve disputes. Its commitment to the principles of good neighborliness gives this agreement a chance to succeed. The remaining question is whether it is realistic to think that the Iranian regime would shed its skin to allow the agreement to succeed.
If the Beijing agreement materializes, the violent and fanatical right-wing Israeli government will be the first to lose out, as respecting the agreement would give rise to a stable and prosperous regional system that sets the course for further normalizations and all the achievements that ensue from them.