The recent Beijing-brokered agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to resume diplomatic ties in the near future, signals alarming developments. The two sides, each championing the cause of minority Shi’a and majority Sunni Islam respectively, have serious political rifts inter alia in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon and have poured in resources to advance their brand of Islam and to counter the other’s influence. Their encounter has been bloody and painful.
The United States, as the patron of the established order in the region, has appeared unwilling or unable to maneuver its political and military forces in a manner to reassure regional countries of the status quo. The attacks on the Saudi oil installations by the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen have left the Saudi rulers wondering when, if ever, Washington will decide to use her military power to defend them. The matter has assumed urgency in the wake of the continued stalemate over Iran’s nuclear programme and the prospects of Israeli military action against the Islamic Republic’s suspected nuclear sites. In such a case Saudi oil installations would likely be the target of more attacks by the Houthis. The resumption of diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Tehran may somewhat mitigate that possibility.
Secondly, the agreement signifies the expanding presence of China in the region. Beijing has carefully and skillfully placed herself as a trustworthy broker between the two rivals even though her recent backtracking from an alleged 25-year financial deal with Iran has left an unpleasant taste for the Islamic Republic rulers. On the Saudi side, however, despite the former US President, Donald Trump, making his first presidential trip abroad to Riyadh in 2017, The House of Saud, appears unsure of the current US Administration’s commitment to its security. She has therefore welcomed Chinese good offices to mend fences with Tehran, despite concerns over Beijing’s diplomatic outreach in the region. The message is clear: if the West appears unwilling to offer protection for its partners, then Saudis for one may chart a somewhat different course that would provide their security.
Thirdly, the Iranian clerical establishment must have felt the urgency for a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia for it to have initiated the process that has now led to this agreement. In parallel Tehran is equally eager to pursue closer relations with the UAE and Bahrain. The urgency emanates from the Iranian government fearing a military strike by the Israelis decimating their nuclear infrastructure and threatening their hold on power. Closer ties with their Arab neighbours may render such an attack by Tel Aviv more risky and less likely. To avert the military strike Iranian Mullahs are even prepared, or so they seem, to reestablish ties with the great Satan Washington. The Leader of Friday Prayers in Qom, Hosseini Boushehri, openly said the same last Friday 17 March stating that such a possibility exists, something that hitherto amounted to sacrilege.
Last but not least, the deal may indicate that both Tehran and Riyadh take the threat of a military operation against Iran seriously. In recent weeks the Israelis and the US have held military maneuvers designed for strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. The efforts of the IAEA in Vienna to curb Iranian nuclear activities have not prevented the country from uranium enrichment suitable for military purposes. In the final analysis, negotiations alone may not hold back Iranian establishment’s nuclear ambitions. Israel is aware of that.
Notwithstanding the significance of the agreement between the two capitals the final outcome is far from certain. For Iran to cease its support of the Houthis indefinitely would deprive it from an important leverage vis-à-vis the Saudis, for which they have invested much time and resources. And for Saudis to stop their financial support of Iranian opposition groups can equally deny them a much-needed bargaining chip in their numerous and multifaceted disputes with Tehran. Much goodwill is required from both sides before they begin to disengage and lose their leverage on the other. It would be foolhardy to pledge one’s bet just yet.