Agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran: a master stroke

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20 mars, 2023
Leslie Varenne

Ten days after the agreement signed in Beijing that puts an end to the seven-year freeze on diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is still difficult to measure all the consequences. However, it is already certain that this is a major event that will have implications far beyond the Middle East. In a few months, the Chinese "method" will have succeeded where the American and European method failed for ten years with the Iranian nuclear agreement. This may herald a new era of conflict resolution with the key words: non-interference, respect for sovereignty and cultures, consideration of economic interests, versus "our values", the carrot and stick of sanctions.


A concrete agreement

While this agreement undoubtedly signals Washington's marginalization throughout the Middle East, American experts have greeted the news in a surprisingly magnanimous manner. "This is not a setback for the United States"; "The fact that Tehran and Riyadh have somehow decided to bury the hatchet is good for everyone". They illustrate the maxim: "Since these mysteries are beyond us, let's pretend to be the organizers."

In the New York Times, Yun Sun, a China expert at the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington, DC, downplays the significance of this, however: "The differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran are deep and sectarian, and it will take more than a resumption of diplomatic relations to mend ties. China's role in securing the deal may not be as critical as it appears, given that Iran and Saudi Arabia were already motivated to reach an agreement."

Yet this agreement appears extremely solid and China's central role in it is hard to argue with.

King Salmane has just invited the Iranian president to Riyadh to seal their alliance. The communique formalizing the resumption of relations was made public in Beijing on March 10, the day Xi Jinping was solemnly inaugurated for a third term of office after a parliamentary vote. This date was obviously not chosen at random. It is a strong symbol that shows the personal involvement of the Chinese head of state, who could not have risked losing face by sponsoring a lame pact. Moreover, even if discussions between the two parties had already taken place in 2021 and 2022 in Oman and Iraq, China has largely participated in their realization. With in particular the three summits organized during Xi Jinping's visit to Riyadh in December 2022: "China/Gulf countries" "China/Arab countries" "China/Saudi Arabia" and the visit of the Iranian President to Beijing last February.

Finally, in addition to the primary clauses on diplomacy, economic cooperation and efforts to promote peace in the region, it is the confidential clauses of this agreement negotiated by the respective intelligence services of the two countries meeting in Beijing that are of greatest interest. The Craddle newspaper, citing a source close to the negotiators, cites some of them:

- Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran agree not to engage in any activity that could destabilize either state, security, military or media.

- Saudi Arabia pledges not to fund media outlets that seek to destabilize Iran, such as Iran International.

- Saudi Arabia pledges not to fund organizations designated as terrorists by Iran, such as the People's Mojahedin Organization (PMOI), Kurdish groups based in Iraq, or militants operating from Pakistan.

- Iran is committed to ensuring that its allied organizations do not violate Saudi territory from within Iraqi territory. During the negotiations, there were discussions about targeting Aramco facilities in Saudi Arabia in September 2019 and Iran's guarantee that an allied organization would not conduct a similar strike from Iraqi lands.

- Saudi Arabia and Iran will strive to make every effort to resolve conflicts in the region, especially the conflict in Yemen, in order to achieve a political solution that guarantees lasting peace in that country.

It is clear that everything has been meticulously planned, framed and supervised.

Finally, and this is undoubtedly the most important point, as an IVERIS contact close to the dossier points out: "Riyadh feared that Tehran would acquire nuclear weapons, so Iran obtained security guarantees from China and probably from Russia. In any case, from the moment that Iran and Saudi Arabia get together and there is such Chinese involvement and such political and economic commitments, nobody can touch Iran". Should we conclude that the Iranian nuclear issue is closed? Obtained in this way, without resorting to megaphone diplomacy and without sanctions, it would undoubtedly be one of the greatest setbacks for Western diplomacy in the last twenty years and a major success for the Chinese method.

Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, the files on top of the pile

Obviously, no one holds a magic wand and changes will take time, nevertheless, on three issues, where the two parties were in conflict by proxy, the effects of this agreement should be felt in the short and/or medium term.

In Yemen, the foundations of a peace plan have already been sketched out, but they have been thwarted by the United States and the Emiratis, however, the truce decreed in April 2022 still holds. On March 16, the UN special envoy spoke of a radical change and praised the efforts of Saudi Arabia and Oman. In Syria, after many secret negotiations, Riyadh opened the way to a normalization with Damascus by delivering humanitarian aid after the earthquake. Bashar al-Assad needs Saudi money to rebuild a country devastated by 12 years of war, and Mohamed Ben Salman will not be able to impose himself as the regional leader guaranteeing security and stability by ignoring Syria. As for the swamp of Lebanese politicians who will no longer be torn between these two antagonistic forces, the ball is now in their court.

Beyond the Middle East

With this agreement, Iran once again becomes the regional power, the key to trade between the Arabian Peninsula and Central Asia that it once was; Saudi Arabia regains its place as the dominant power in the region. As always, when a major pawn moves on a chessboard, it forces the others to reposition themselves and the dominoes fall into place one after the other. All those who had once dreamed of becoming a regional power must scale back their ambitions. This is the case of Turkey, which has been weakened by the earthquake, its economic situation, the presidential election to be held in May 2023 and its ambiguous position within NATO with the war in Ukraine. Its closest ally, Qatar, will also be affected by this loss of influence. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who feels the wind of the ball coming, has already had to make some concessions, by opening the dams on the Euphrates and giving water back to Syria and Iraq. He has also initiated a reconciliation with Egypt, with whom he has been at odds for ten years. As for the United Arab Emirates, they will no longer be able to oppose Riyadh as they did recently in Yemen. If Mohamed Ben Zayed had taken the ascendancy over the young Mohamed Ben Salman, this era is now over, according to a fine connoisseur of the Gulf royalties: "MBZ does not make the weight, This breakthrough of MBS exceeds his influence."

All the above-mentioned countries are actors in the Libyan chaos and play different parts. Since it is time for reconciliation and the fashion for non-interference, are they ready to agree to allow Libyans to choose their fate? Are they ready to withdraw their mercenaries and concoct a real peace plan, which by capillary action could calm the Sahel situation somewhat?

It is difficult to answer this question at this time. However, if no one can predict how far the upheavals underway in the Middle East will extend after the Saudi-Iranian agreement, it is a safe bet that they will eventually have consequences throughout the Arab-Muslim world. Algeria, which is due to join the BRICS before the end of 2023, will have the opportunity to play its cards in favor of the resolution of conflicts in Libya and the Sahel.

The big losers in this story are Israel and the United States and those who did not anticipate the geopolitical upheavals: Morocco and Europe. As for France, it has lost its influence in the Middle East and is increasingly challenged on the African continent. French diplomacy, which was once flamboyant, has become atonic or worse... While in the shadow of the Forbidden City, Iranians and Saudis were playing a master stroke on the world chessboard, Emmanuel Macron was having fun in the Democratic Republic of Congo, thus leaving to posterity the pictures of a French president feasting in the underbelly of the capital of a country at war...

Leslie Varenne