China’s efforts to broker an Iran-Saudi Arabia deal are seen by analysts as broader signs of a “changing world order”.
During talks in Beijing on Friday, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to restore diplomatic ties and reopen their embassies within two months. The agreement also stipulated the affirmation of “respect for the sovereignty of States and non-interference in internal affairs of States”.
Iranian state media posted images and videos of Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, shaking hands with Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban, with Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, in between.
China’s role as a mediator in resolving longstanding issues between the regional foes had not been made public prior to the announcement.
Wang reportedly said that China will continue to play a constructive role in solving hotspot problems and show responsibility as a great country. He added that as a “good faith” and “reliable” mediator, China has fulfilled its duties as a host for dialogue.
Joint Trilateral Declaration of the Kingdom of #Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic #Iranand the People’s Republic #China. pic.twitter.com/MyMkcGK2s0
— Ministry of Foreign Affairs 🇸🇦 (@KSAMofaEN) March 10, 2023
‘Low risk, high reward for China’
The two Gulf states severed ties in 2016 when Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shiite Muslim scholar, sparking protests in Iran with protesters attacking the embassy in Tehran.
However, the geopolitical conflict between the two goes back decades.
Both sides faced each other and waged proxy wars in many conflict zones in the Middle East.
In Yemen, where the war has now been going on for more than eight years, the Houthi rebels are supported by Tehran, while Riyadh leads a military coalition in support of the government.
Since 2021, talks have been held between both officials in Iraq and Oman, but no deals have been reached.
Robert Mogielnicki, a senior resident scientist at the Arab Gulf State Institute in Washington, D.C., told Al Jazeera that the brokered deal is evidence of a growing Chinese presence and its increased interest in playing a role in the region.
Since the United States does not have good relations with Iran, China is “in a good position to reach an agreement,” he said.
“It is a relatively low-risk, high-reward activity for China because the Chinese are not tied to any particular outcome,” Mogielnicki said.
“Improved diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran will reduce the likelihood of regional conflicts and reduce regional tensions. That is a good thing for China, for the US and also for regional actors.”
Sina Toossi, a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., told Al Jazeera that China has “a clear interest” in improving ties and stability in the region, as the Gulf is a vital source of energy for Beijing, which imports energy from Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In 2019, when Saudi oil facilities were targeted by the Houthis, it temporarily impacted the country’s oil production, leading to a rise in global oil prices of more than 14 percent over the weekend, the biggest spike in more than a decade .
Toossi said this was “the worst case scenario for China, that a conflict in the Persian Gulf would affect its energy supply and economic interests”.
Choose a side
Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, told Al Jazeera that the U.S. has “increasingly deviated from and increasingly adopting policies that simply make it impossible to be a credible mediator.”
“The US is increasingly taking sides in regional conflicts and becoming a competitor in regional conflicts, which makes it very difficult for the US to play a peacemaking role,” Parsi said. “China did not take sides between Saudi and Iran, worked very hard not to be drawn into their conflict and was able to play a peacemaking role as a result.”
China’s breakthrough comes as several US media reported this week that Israel and Iran moved closer to war.
Toossi said that while China also has substantial political and economic relations with Israel, the US “has historically supported Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran, and so has been unable to play that (mediator) role.”
“I think this is a broader sign of the changing world order and how America’s period of being the undisputed global superpower — especially after the Cold War — is coming to an end,” Toossi said.
“(For) countries like Saudi Arabia, America has been the only viable partner in recent decades. Now these countries have other options. China can give them a lot of support – economic, political, military relations – and so can Russia.
“It is in their interest that they live side by side with Iran and Iran is not going anywhere. If the US doesn’t support them unconditionally – because what I think (Saudi Crown Prince) Mohammed bin Salman originally wanted against Iran was a very confrontational policy – that they are willing to come to terms with Iran and live together, which I think is the direction they seem to be going,” Toossi said.
Parsi said that after Saudi Arabia’s oil field was attacked, the US, under former President Donald Trump, made it clear it would not get involved in a war with or for the Middle East.
The Biden administration then tried to correct this by indicating that it will assist its regional partners, assuming that this alliance would play an important role in its competition with China.
But, according to Parsi, by moving closer to both Israel and Saudi Arabia, the US “became further entangled in the conflict of these countries and made it more difficult for itself to be a mediator, and China has benefited from this.”
Iran and Saudi Arabia have been waging proxy wars in the region for decades, affecting Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. While the now normalized relations between the two will not automatically resolve their huge geopolitical differences, Toossi said there is now “an opportunity for a more intensive and sustainable dialogue that can help bridge these differences”.
The trilateral statement released Friday also significantly mentioned the 2001 security agreement and the broader 1998 cooperation agreement reached between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a major breakthrough at the time after diplomatic relations broke down in the 1980s following the Iranian revolution.
“Calling these agreements makes it seem like both sides are trying to recapture the spirit of cooperation and cooperation…those agreements brought a lot of economic, security, political cooperation and high-level diplomatic contact,” Toossi said.
“Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia were quite good from 1997 to 2005-2006. There is potentially a willingness, it seems, to go back to that.”