Saudi Arabia and Iran, two of West Asia’s major powers that have been at odds with each other for decades, agreed to restore diplomatic relations recently in an agreement brokered by China.
About the deal –
- Saudi Arabia and Iran, represented by their national security advisers, signed agreement in Beijing, China, to re-establish diplomatic ties, respect each other’s sovereignty and maintain non-interference in the other’s domestic affairs.
- This agreement ends seven years of diplomatic estrangement between the two Gulf neighbours.
- The deal has been necessitated by mutual interests of both nations.
- For instance, Saudi Arabia, which is undergoing rapid changes, wants peace in its neighbourhood.
- Also, Iran, which is under the U.S.-imposed sanctions, wants more diplomatic and economic openings.
Significance of the deal –
- The agreement addresses the most serious regional confrontation.
- It will pave way to reduce regional tensions and establish the foundation for further dialogue on improving relations and engaging on contentious issues.
- The deal could also have far-reaching implications on regional geopolitics, from peace in Yemen to stability in Lebanon.
China as a power broker in West Asia –
- China has been involved in multilateral peace talks such as the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (from which the U.S. unilaterally withdrew in 2018).
- But this is the first time Beijing is using its leverage directly to bring conflicting parties to reconciliation.
- Also, unlike the U.S., which has hostile ties with Iran, Beijing enjoys good ties with Tehran and Riyadh, as a leading oil buyer and trading partner, respectively. This has hence put China in a unique position to bring two of the region’s most significant powers closer.
- This new approach of China was signaled by its academics two years ago. They indicated that China was looking at greater political involvement in the region on the basis of “quasi-mediation diplomacy”. It was to promote China’s broad commercial, diplomatic and political interests rather than its hard security concerns.
- Chinese President Xi Jinping during his three summits (bilateral, Gulf and Arab League) in Riyadh in 2022, conveyed to his Arab interlocutors that China will be content with managing differences through diplomacy so that they did not escalate into conflict.
- The Chinese Foreign Office also described Xi’s visit as “consolidating consensus on global governance, development, security and other crucial issues”. The Saudi-Iran accord is hence the first manifestation of this new approach.
Deal without USA’s connection –
- All the major peace initiatives in the region in the post-War world like the Camp David agreement (1978), Oslo Accords (1993), the Israel-Jordan Treaty (1994), Middle East Quartet (2002) or the Abraham Accords (2020) had a constant U.S. presence.
- However, the recent interactions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have confirmed that the Arab states were prepared to pursue their interests without United States involvement.
- This was largely the result of increasing regional disenchantment with the U.S. as a security-provider. This has been coupled alongside strong messages from Washington that it was less enthusiastic about being the regional security-guarantor.
- The U.S.’s military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan also contributed to its loss of credibility among its regional allies.
- The regional states thus are seeking to broaden their options and build alternative relationships with other nations to suit their interests, apart from the US.
China’s Interests in West Asia –
- Stability in West Asia, a major energy source, is essential for China, which is the world’s largest oil importer.
- West Asia is also crucial for the realisation of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
- The Gulf states are important for China’s logistical connectivity, investment, consultancy and contracting partnerships.
Addressing apprehensions –
- Saudi-Iran differences will be difficult to resolve as they result from its deep sense of strategic vulnerability vis-à-vis its northern neighbour and concerns that Iran might use Shia proxies to destabilise regional states.
- Iran thus will need to play a more pro-active role to assure its neighbour of its benign intentions.
- This effort could gain credibility with China’s active engagement with the two regional powers.
Other diplomatic challenges in West Asia –
- The regional security also needs the revival of the nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and linked with it, the management of Israel’s
- However, doubts remain on whether the U.S.’s sharply polarised domestic scene will allow renewal of the agreement.
- The Israel’s domestic politics, dominated by the extreme right wing is also expected to obstruct the renewal of the JCPOA and maintain a hostile posture towards Iran.
What should be India’s posture?
- China affirmation that its role in West Asian affairs is likely to get more active and substantial may pose challenges for Indian diplomacy.
- However, India should keep the management of its ties with China as its diplomatic priority.
- India will also need to engage with China in West Asia, as both nations have a broad gamut of shared interests in energy security, free and open sea lanes, logistical connectivity, and above all regional stability.
- Hence both can work together to further mutual and regional interests.
China’s Foreign Affairs head, Wang Yi, who brokered the agreement, described it as a “victory for dialogue, a victory for peace”. However, it is too early to say whether peace would hold between the two, given their multilayered enmity. Thus, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China should be mindful of the pitfalls ahead and continue to build on the momentum created now to achieve a cold peace between the two regional powers.
Source – The Hindu
QUESTION – The recent China-brokered normalisation of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a stark reminder of the waning influence of the U.S. in the Middle Eastern region. Do you agree? Also, discuss how should India approach these developments?