Middle East – Iran & Saudi Arabia 2023

Written by  //  May 8, 2023  //  Geopolitics, Iran, Saudi Arabia  //  Comments Off on Middle East – Iran & Saudi Arabia 2023

Saudi-Iranian detente is fragile but potential for the Middle East is huge
Patrick Wintour, Diplomatic editor
Should rapprochement solidify it could augur well for Yemen, Lebanon and Syria – and spell disaster for Israel
(The Guardian) Tehran’s embassy in Riyadh has reopened for the first time since 2016, the Iranian foreign ministry quietly confirmed in April, in the latest of a series of gestures showing that the two Middle East powers are determined to dial down a rivalry that has disfigured the region for 40 years.
All kinds of signs, trivial and large, suggest the rapprochement is genuine: civilian flights between the two countries are to resume; an Iranian won an $800,000 Saudi Qur’an-reading competition; Iranian steel is making its way to Saudi markets; officials from the two countries were seen embracing after the Saudi navy rescued 60 Iranians trapped in Sudan; and Ibrahim Raisi is expected to announce a visit to Riyadh soon, the first by an Iranian president since 2007.
The question now is whether these winds of change could spread through the Middle East, unlocking conflicts in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and even Israel, all of which have been aggravated or even sustained by the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
… A deal could confirm Washington’s declining influence in the Middle East, weaken Israel, restore Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to the Arab fold, provide Saudi Arabia with a new long-term carbon market in China and start to end Iran’s economic isolation, he said.
But Ayham Kamel, the head of Middle East research for the Eurasia Group, predicted a slow process even with China acting as a guarantor. … He portrayed the detente as part of a broader realignment in the Middle East. “Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries want global partnerships with the US as the key but not only pillar,” he said. “Their preference remains to have a much closer relationship with Washington, but they are not willing to cut relations with other powers such as China.”
… As a quid pro quo for Iranian help in Yemen, Saudi Arabia appears prepared to normalise relations with Syria’s Assad. He has been treated as a pariah for 12 years, but on Sunday his country was readmitted to the Arab League. Riyadh contends that normalisation may lead to a strengthening of Syrian institutions, and offers the most realistic way to regain influence and control cross-border drug networks.
But again there are obstacles. Qatar, Washington’s key partner in the Gulf, wants Assad to make political concessions, something he has shown no previous inclination to do.
… A third country likely to benefit from an end to Saudi-Iranian rivalry would be Lebanon. It has not had a president since the end of Michel Aoun’s term in October. The powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group and the Amal Movement party led by speaker of Lebanon’s parliament, Nabih Berri, which together form Lebanon’s Shia base, maintain their support for Suleiman Franjieh, a close friend of Assad, but Saudi Arabia refuses to back him.
For the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, all this potentially spells disaster. He thought the Abraham accords engineered by the Trump administration would normalise relations with Saudi Arabia, but instead Riyadh is normalising relations with Israel’s enemies – Iran, Syria and even Hamas.

6 April
Saudi, Iran restore ties, say they seek Mideast stability
(AP) — Long-time Mideast rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia took another significant step toward reconciliation Thursday, formally restoring diplomatic ties after a seven-year rift, affirming the need for regional stability and agreeing to pursue economic cooperation.
The agreement was reached in Beijing during a meeting between the Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers, a month after China had brokered an initial reconciliation agreement between the two regional powerhouses.
The latest understanding further lowers the chance of armed conflict between the rivals, both directly and in proxy conflicts around the region. It could bolster efforts by diplomats to end a long war in Yemen, a conflict in which both Iran and Saudi Arabia are deeply entrenched.
Thursday’s announcement also represents another diplomatic victory for the Chinese as Gulf Arab states perceive the United States slowly withdrawing from the wider region.
(Politico) ‘Win-win’: Washington is just fine with the China-brokered Saudi-Iran deal
More stability in the Middle East benefits the United States, even if China made it happen, officials and experts say.

11-19 March
How China Became a Peacemaker in the Middle East
Washington’s Missteps Paved the Way for Beijing’s Saudi-Iranian Deal
By Trita Parsi and Khalid Aljabri
(Foreign Affairs) China delivered the most significant regional development since the Abraham Accords: a deal to end seven years of Saudi-Iranian estrangement. The normalization agreement signed last week by Riyadh and Tehran is noteworthy not only because of its potential positive repercussions in the region—from Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and Yemen—but also because of China’s leading role, and the United States’ absence, in the diplomacy that led to it.
Washington has long feared growing Chinese influence in the Middle East, imagining that a U.S. military withdrawal would create geopolitical vacuums that China would fill. But the relevant void was not a military one, created by U.S. troop withdrawals; it was the diplomatic vacuum left by a foreign policy that led with the military and made diplomacy all too often an afterthought.
The deal represents a win for Beijing. By mediating de-escalation between two archenemies and major regional oil producers, it has both helped secure the energy supply it needs and burnished its credentials as a trusted broker in a region burdened by conflicts, something Washington could not do.
Gabrielle Debinski: ​Is China’s Saudi-Iran diplomatic deal for real?
(GZERO) Ambiguity is the point. The Iran-Saudi row is so bitter and protracted that it’s hard to believe Riyadh has much faith this new deal will yield significant changes in Iranian behavior.
After getting the cold shoulder from Biden, Riyadh’s message to Washington appears clear: We have other friends in high places. While that may be true, China is hardly in a position to provide the security guarantees that Washington does, including, ironically, protecting the passages that allow Saudi to export its oil to … China.
In this way, Miller says, from the Saudi perspective, the deal can be seen more as a “hedge” against Iran. “Getting the Chinese to broker what amounts right now to a stylized ceasefire – it’s more a transactional arrangement than it is anything else” – might help the Saudis by “preempting or ameliorating a crisis,” he says.
The Hollow Saudi-Iranian Agreement
Barak Barfi
A new Chinese-brokered restoration of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran is hardly sufficient to overcome those two countries’ longstanding hostilities. Far from representing a regional realignment, it is ultimately more likely to demonstrate the limits of China’s influence.
(Project Syndicate) The recently announced Chinese-brokered agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic relations is the latest sign that China is muscling its way into international diplomacy. Some see the deal as further evidence of the United States’ eroding might and influence, and of its Middle East fatigue. In fact, the agreement is less a sign of American torpor than a reflection of unique regional circumstances.  … The new agreement is no Camp David Accords (which effectively ended war between Arab states and Israel); nor is it comparable even to the Abraham Accords (which established relations between Israel and Arab countries that had never joined a war against it). Rather, the agreement’s text promises little more than a resumption of normal diplomatic ties. It is less gold than glitter. Without more concrete steps toward reconciliation, backed by external guarantees and supervision, the Chinese-brokered accord may simply represent an interregnum before the next phase of bilateral tensions.
Jonah Shepp: Saudi Arabia and Iran’s China-Brokered Détente Doesn’t Upend Mideast Politics And it doesn’t mark some changing of the guard from the U.S. to China.
(New York) Most coverage of the deal has highlighted Beijing’s role, adding nearly unanimous expert analysis describing the event as a sign of China’s rising clout in the Middle East, the waning influence of the U.S., and a diplomatic shake-up of historic proportions.
This reaction contains some truth, but it’s both overblown and premature. For one thing, the deal is a transactional agreement, not a wholesale reset. At best, it’s a small first step toward resolving the deep, long-standing tensions between Riyadh and Tehran. The rivals have agreed to reopen embassies and reactivate a lapsed security agreement, which could pave the way to ending their yearslong proxy war in Yemen. The China-brokered talks followed two years of efforts with Iraq and Oman serving as earlier intermediaries, so a lot of work had already been done before Beijing could claim credit for sealing the deal.

​Ian Bremmer: China brokers deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia
… a big deal for a China that historically would have played no leadership role in any major negotiations outside of things that are of critical national security importance in Asia, in their backyard. And here we have Xi Jinping announcing a deal that the Americans, the Europeans, literally played no role in and couldn’t play a role. The United States doesn’t have diplomatic relations open with Iran. Should be welcomed by the world. It’s better for everyone if these two major countries in the region are able to engage diplomatically with each other. But of course, it also shows a more significant footprint for Xi Jinping’s China on the global stage. A country that right now has bad relations with the United States, no trust and increasingly heading in a confrontational direction.

What to expect after Iran, Saudi Arabia agree to restore ties
The deal could have wide-ranging consequences but building on it, analysts say, will prove the main challenge
By Maziar Motamedi
(Al Jazeera) The agreement signed in Beijing on Friday said the two countries’ foreign ministers will meet to discuss diplomatic missions within two months, marking the end of a seven-year rift.
Yemen’s warring sides hold prisoner exchange talks in Geneva
The Yemen talks began a day after Iran and Saudi Arabia announced a deal to re-establish diplomatic ties.

Wang Yi, center, China’s top foreign policy official, with Ali Shamkhani, right, the secretary of Iran’s security council, and Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban, Saudi Arabia’s minister of state, in Beijing, on Friday.Credit…China Daily, via Reuters

Iran and Saudi Arabia agree to restore relations
The regional rivals are expected to reopen embassies within two months as they re-establish ties and a security agreement after Beijing talks
(Al Jazeera) Iranian state media posted images and video of Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, with Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban and Wang Yi, China’s most senior diplomat.
“After implementing the decision, the foreign ministers of both nations will meet to prepare for an exchange of ambassadors,” Iranian state television said.
Timeline: Iran and Saudi Arabia, from rivalry to rapprochement

Saudi Arabia and Iran Agree to Restore Ties, in Talks Hosted by China
The deal between regional rivals underlines China’s growing economic and political importance in the Middle East, and what some analysts say is waning American influence.
(NYT) After years of open hostility and proxy conflicts across the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed to re-establish diplomatic ties, they announced on Friday, in a significant pivot for the two regional rivals that was facilitated by China.
China hosted the talks that led to the breakthrough, highlighting Beijing’s growing role as a global economic and political power, and counterbalance to Washington — particularly in the Middle East, a region that was long shaped by the military and diplomatic involvement of the United States.

Iran and Saudi Arabia agree to restore ties after China-brokered talks
Embassies to reopen in move that could have wide implications for Iran nuclear deal and Yemen war
(The Guardian) Riyadh cut ties with Tehran after Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran in 2016 following the Saudi execution of the revered Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. The rivalry between predominantly Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia has dominated Middle East politics in recent years, spreading into Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

Why Iran and Saudi Arabia making nice is a very big deal
China’s dealmaking heralds the post-America Middle East.
Jonathan Guyer, Senior Foreign Policy Writer
(Vox) … On Friday, Saudi Arabia and Iran restarted diplomatic relations after seven years of high tensions and violent exchanges between them. Within two months, they will reopen embassies and have both pledged “respect for the sovereignty of states and noninterference in their internal affairs.” The two countries have been engaged in a proxy war in Yemen over the past eight years that has calmed down until recently, and have been on opposite sides of conflicts throughout the Middle East, in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. While normalization may not mean a cessation of violence throughout the region, the pause in outright hostilities between the two should be welcomed by all. The breakthrough builds on several years of talks in Iraq and Oman.
And the most interesting dynamic may be that China led the way.
“If you create a diplomatic vacuum, someone’s going to fill it. That’s basically what’s happened to US policy in the Gulf,” says Chas Freeman, a retired career diplomat with extensive experience in the Middle East and China. “It’s a really major development.”
That China played a role shows where global power is shifting — and a meaningful change in how Chinese President Xi Jinping conducts Middle East policy. Thus far, Beijing has been cautious in taking an active role there; this diplomacy, while significant, doesn’t mean China is trying to displace the US security role in the Middle East, Freeman explained. Instead, China is “trying to produce a peaceful, international environment there, in which you can do business,” he told me.
Iran, hampered by ongoing protests against its government, was perhaps more willing to make a deal. And it’s not yet clear whether the normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a true reconciliation or just a brief cessation of hostilities. Regardless, it’s a promising sign for stability in the region for the short term — less so for US influence in it.
It’s a big blow to the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. After pledging to hold Saudi Arabia to account on the presidential trail, Biden visited the kingdom in an about-face last summer in response to high oil prices caused by Russia’s war — and the US didn’t get very much in return. “They are still pursuing an outdated and disproven cold war mentality by doubling down on their existing allies like Saudi Arabia and abandoning all campaign promises, especially on human rights,” Al-Jabri told me.
Both the Biden and Trump administrations tethered their Saudi and Middle East policy to uniting Israel and Gulf states over countering Iran. Iran and Saudi Arabia’s cooling of tensions shows that for all of the kingdom’s harsh anti-Iranian rhetoric in recent years, there is space for collaboration, albeit without a strong US role.
China is the largest trading partner of the Gulf and most of the Middle East, and it has a real stake in an easing of tensions. Looking ahead, Saudi Arabia made a strategic choice here and elsewhere — it’s looking to join the BRICS grouping of developing countries and take on observer status at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Atlantic Council experts react: There is more than one gulf in the Middle East. There is the Persian Gulf that also gives a colloquial name to the neighboring Arab states, but there is also the gulf of hostility and conflict that separates long-standing rivals such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. On Friday, the latter may have begun to narrow as Riyadh and Tehran agreed to restore diplomatic relations in a deal brokered by Beijing. If this rapprochement pans out—itself a Gulf-sized “if”—it could have big implications for the United States, Israel, the region, and the wider world.
 Iran and Saudi Arabia just agreed to restore relations, with help from China. Here’s what that means for the Middle East and the world.

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