By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, 15 March 2023 (IDN) — Saudi Arabia and Iran— two archrivals in the Middle East who severed links seven years ago—re-established diplomatic, political and economic relations last week (10 March) in a historic deal brokered by China, one of the world’s major nuclear powers.
Described as a victory for Chinese diplomacy in a volatile region which for long has been the happy hunting grounds of the United States, the rapprochement between a strong ally of the US and a longstanding ally of the Russians and the Chinese was one of the glorious uncertainties of Middle Eastern politics.
The restoration of ties between the two nations was best described by the New York Times as "among the topsiest and turviest of developments anyone could have imagined, a shift that left heads spinning in capitals around the globe".
With the Saudis and the Chinese backing Iran, would this new alliance positively or negatively impact the long-outstanding Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran and the P-5, plus Germany and the European Union (EU)?
The Times said China, one of the signatories to the JCPOA, does not want Iran to have nuclear weapons. “If Beijing has new sway in Tehran, American officials hope perhaps it could use it to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions,” the Times said.
But such a scenario is unlikely.
Jackie Cabasso, Executive Director of the Western States Legal Foundation (WSLF), a non-profit, public interest organization which monitors and analyzes U.S. nuclear weapons, told IDN the stunning news of the China-brokered rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran was preceded by just one day by a New York Times report that Saudi Arabia is seeking concessions from the United States, including assistance with its civilian nuclear program, in exchange for normalizing its relations with Israel—a goal long sought by Israel to help isolate Iran.
With the discovery of massive uranium deposits on its territory, Saudi Arabia has made clear its intention to enrich uranium and build nuclear reactors, ostensibly for civilian purposes, with China’s assistance, she said.
But as recently as December, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister fueled speculation that the Kingdom is seeking a nuclear weapons capability, declaring, “If Iran gets an operational nuclear weapon, all bets are off.” [i]
The implications of the China-Iran-Saudi Arabia deal for the revival of the JCPOA are among many head-spinning questions arising from the deal, said Cabasso.
In a lengthy analysis published in the Tehran Times, an Iranian international relations expert, Amir M. Esmaeili, states his belief that chances for the resumption of Iran nuclear talks in the foreseeable future have been increased.
He argues that “China's efforts to revive the JCPOA as well as Beijing’s friendly relations with both Tehran and Riyadh might encourage Saudi Arabia to persuade the US for a constructive agreement with Iran”.
He adds that the agreement would enhance Iran’s bargaining power at the negotiating table. [ii]
The underlying question is the potential for the future proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. China is interested in preventing nuclear weapons proliferation there, and as a party to the JCPOA, it has a seat at the table.
“But will the JCPOA be revived or transformed, or will Iran and Saudi Arabia join Israel and get the bomb? Only time will tell,” she declared.
Dr M.V. Ramana, Professor and Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security, Graduate Program Director, MPPGA at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs. University of British Columbia, Vancouver, told IDN the establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran should help with the impasse in nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Two regional countries have been spearheading the tough approach towards Iran’s nuclear program: Israel and Saudi Arabia.
“I would imagine that as part of establishing diplomatic relations, Saudi Arabia and Iran must be making efforts to reconcile their differences on two key conflicts: Iran’s nuclear program and the war in Yemen.”
Suppose these efforts are successful, argued Dr Ramana. In that case, that leaves Israel even more isolated than they already are and hopefully creates more pressure on them to be more open to a diplomatic solution to the situation with Iran’s nuclear program.
Apart from the diplomacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the other notable feature of this development is that China brokered it. Again, China's involvement should also help resolve the situation with Iran’s nuclear program, declared Dr Ramana.
In an interview with IDN, Joseph Gerson, President of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security, told IDN the Chinese-brokered rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia should be welcomed by people in the United States and elsewhere.
“Tensions between these two brutal autocracies have fueled their deadly proxy war in Yemen and destabilized the politics in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon at considerable costs to the people of those nations.”
“In the United States, we need to move beyond neo-colonial thinking in relation to what was once termed the U.S. Middle East sphere of interest and the zero-sum thinking which is fueling the new and extremely dangerous U.S.-China Cold War,” said Gerson, author of With Hiroshima Eyes and Empire and the Bomb.
“The shock of the Chinese diplomatic coup, which reflects China’s growing diplomatic clout, has upset many U.S. policymakers and members of the U.S. elite because, with its ties to Iran, Beijing has done what the United States could not do and because it reflects increased Chinese influence in the oil-rich Middle East,” he noted.
Despite the Iranian revolution, until the catastrophic failures of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, what was once described as the geopolitical center of the struggle for world power lay almost entirely within the U.S. sphere, he added.
In Washington and beyond, the loss of U.S. Middle East regional hegemony, Gerson said, has been disorienting and is being reconfirmed by the Beijing-Riyadh-Teheran deal.
“But we now live in an increasingly multi-polar world order in which other nations have greater agency and an increased ability to secure the interests of their elite than was the case during the Cold War and immediate post-Cold War eras,” he added.
“The shock of the Chinese-led agreement may, over time, help people in the United States adjust and respond to this new and more complex reality.”
The New York Times described the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to renew normal diplomatic relations as a “win-win-win” agreement, limited to China (which will have increased confidence in its energy supplies), Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Even with the downside of the agreement reinforcing the repressive of the three parties to the deal, there are additional winners, said Gerson.
“Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia will continue to compete for leadership and influence across the Middle East, but their agreement carries the potential of decreasing what has been their destabilization of neighboring nations.”
It will increase pressure on apartheid Israel to respect the rights of Palestinians, he argued. And Middle East peace and stability is in the interests of the U.S. people.
“We can also hope that the Chinese brokered agreement will sober arrogant war hawks in Washington, helping them and people across the United States understand that even if our values and ambitions differ, diplomatic collaboration with China to reduce international tensions, to address the climate emergency, and to increase economic security are in our common interests,” declared Gerson. [IDN-InDepthNews]
Image: Wang Yi (center), a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, with representatives from Saudi Arabia and Iran in Beijing. [Photo by Wang Jing / China Daily]