Geopolitical lessons from the Chinese-Iranian-Saudi waltz

While the recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not a significant strategic turning point, it could have important consequences for the region, particularly for Lebanon. Meanwhile, China’s involvement in the Middle East’s political scene is more consequential and aligned with the decline of American hyper-power in the region.

Geopolitical lessons from the Chinese-Iranian-Saudi waltz

In Beijing, the Iranian head of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Chamkhani (right), and the Saudi national security adviser, Musaid Al-Aiban (left), signed an agreement under the aegis of the head of diplomacy Chinese, Wang Yi, March 10, 2023. (Credit: Reuters)

This marks the second time in just over 40 years that Iran and Saudi Arabia have restored diplomatic relations after breaking them off during periods of acute crisis. This highlights both the significance and fragility of their recent agreement, which was brokered under the auspices of Beijing.

Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been vying for geopolitical and religious leadership in the region.

It is unlikely that this long-standing rivalry, which has developed into a cold war over the past decade, will disappear overnight.

Iran’s unwavering ideological foundations are fundamentally incompatible with Saudi Arabia’s strategic objectives.

Iran has exported the Islamic revolution to several parts of the Arab world, through the creation and/or support of Shiite militias that infiltrate and compete with the states in which they operate.

Tehran’s radical hostility toward the United States, which it perceives as the region's primary enemy and its manipulation of the Palestinian cause for political purposes have further complicated relations between the two countries.

Although Iran has moved toward normalizing its relations with Saudi Arabia, Tehran is unlikely to abandon its pan-Shiism project, ballistic missiles and nuclear program. These factors have been a source of concern for Gulf countries for years — enough reasons for Riyadh to continue to view Iran as a significant threat rather than a potential ally.

It is important not to overestimate the significance of the recent warming of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Unlike the case of the Abraham Accords, this development is not a strategic turning point for the region, but it should be underestimated either.

The two countries had previously restored relations in the past. This was the case in 1991 after a four-year break following the death of several hundreds Iranian pilgrims in Mecca after clashes with Saudi security forces.

The 1990s saw a rare lull in tensions between the two powers, aided by the election of reformist Mohammad Khatami in Iran.

Could a similar scenario play out once again today?

Israel, the big loser

After two years of negotiations, which began in April 2021, Riyadh and Tehran have finally come to an agreement. This indicates that both countries are interested in de-escalation — each side for its own reasons.

Saudi Arabia, led by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, has made its national project a priority and has been undergoing transformation. As a result, it no longer wants to bear the cost of direct or indirect confrontation with Iran.

The kingdom was shaken by the attacks made on Aramco in 2019, 2020 and 2021, along with the lack of response from the US. Given Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the escalation between Iran and Israel, Riyadh prefers to take a step back, fearing any retaliation on part of Tehran.

Above all, Saudi Arabia has been working to extricate itself from the Yemeni conflict, which it entered in 2015 against the Iranian-backed Houthis.

This military venture was a departure from the kingdom’s usual cautious approach and soon turned into a political and humanitarian catastrophe, jeopardizing Riyadh’s security.

The timing of the recent announcement, which took everyone by surprise, is likely linked to a significant breakthrough in the Yemen crisis, with discussions of a potential peace agreement having gained momentum in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, Iran has not made major concessions in the region for years, and it is unclear why it would suddenly do so.

It is possible that Tehran is now more interested in restoring relations with Saudi Arabia than before.

The general instability in the four Arab countries where Iran has significant influence (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen) has undoubtedly played a role in this decision.

Such an agreement may allow Iran to establish a modus vivendi with Riyadh and stabilize its “empire” with the help of Saudi petrodollars.

However, the most significant factor in Iran’s decision to reach an agreement with Saudi Arabia may lie elsewhere.

Over the past six months, the Islamic Republic has faced an unprecedented popular uprising, which has weakened its position.

Furthermore, Iran’s alliance with Russia in the context of the Ukrainian war, along with its enrichment of uranium to dangerous levels, has complicated its relations with the West. With the possibility of a direct confrontation with Israel, Tehran cannot afford to be completely isolated in the region.

The agreement with Saudi Arabia would allow Iran to distance the Gulf petro-monarchies from Israel, thwarting the plans of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to build a grand coalition against Tehran.

Iranian media has widely presented the announcement as a victory against Israel and the US.

Undoubtedly, Israel is the biggest loser in this situation.

As for the US, while the warming of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran may serve its interests, the fact that the agreement was sponsored by Beijing likely occurred to Washington’s dismay.

Since Washington has no diplomatic relations with Iran, it could not act as a mediator between the two countries. But Baghdad or Oman, both of which hosted the talks, were well-positioned to play this role.

A new dimension for China

The most significant aspect of the agreement — for the moment — is that Saudi Arabia and Iran have chosen to entrust China with the task of mediating between them, offering Beijing leeway in the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape.

China was a major economic player in the region but has previously refrained from engaging in geopolitical issues. By sponsoring this reconciliation, Beijing has altered its stance in the Middle East and expanded its role in the region.

Several reasons are behind this major step.

The first is related to China’s energy security, as Saudi Arabia is its primary oil supplier.

China also imports a significant amount of Iranian crude, albeit indirectly to avoid international sanctions. Therefore, the stability of the region is a crucial factor for the Chinese economy’s health.

As a sign of China’s growing involvement in the region’s politics, President Xi Jinping made a state visit to Saudi Arabia in December 2021 and hosted Iranian President Ebrahim Raissi in February 2022.

The second reason is related to China’s tug-of-war with Washington, which goes beyond Middle Eastern issues. China aims to demonstrate its capabilities as a superpower that can compete with the US on the international stage, presenting itself as a more neutral and accommodating partner than its adversary.

What better way to do this than with a diplomatic feat in what was previously considered an American backyard?

Could this mean greater Beijing involvement in all the hot issues of the Middle East, notably those related to Palestine, Syria andLebanon?

Currently, there is no indication that China’s involvement in the Middle East will extend beyond the Gulf, which is clearly more important to Beijing than the rest of the region.

Iran, which signed a 25-year cooperation agreement with China in 2021, had a vested interest in Beijing mediating this agreement.

But Saudi Arabia’s approval is more surprising. It demonstrates the kingdom’s desire to reduce its dependence on its American ally, with whom relations have been tumultuous in recent years.

Riyadh likely wants to further provoke Washington — after refusing to increase oil production and distancing itself from Russia in the context of the war in Ukraine — and likely believes that China has more leverage over Iran to ensure compliance with the agreement.

The pertinent question is: Could China, which has a military base in Djibouti, become the new police of the Gulf?

Could this agreement mark the official beginning of the post-American era in the Middle East?

It is important to remain cautious and not jump to conclusions.

Despite the possibility of US disengagement, Washington remains the greatest power in the region, particularly in the Gulf, with numerous military bases and an unmatched network of alliances.

Even though Washington’s relations with Riyadh are currently strained, the two will conduct joint military exercises in mid-March.

​​Rather than a radical break, Beijing’s sponsorship is seen as part of a continuity that has been observed for years: the decline of American hyper-power in the Middle East.

This is reflected in the US disengagement in the region, Russia’s return to the forefront, the growing influence of regional powers such as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia and the empowerment of Washington’s allies.

Saudi Arabia’s double bet

At present, China seems to be the major beneficiary of this agreement, while Iran is also emerging stronger. The hard-line policies of the ultra-conservatives have been rewarded, albeit at a relatively modest price — namely a resolution (which was necessary anyway) to the Yemeni issue.

Iran can also anticipate reaping benefits from this agreement in Iraq, Syria (with the normalization of the Syrian regime) and Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia is double gambling on China’s neutrality and Iran’s sincerity.

Should this rapprochement lead to a breakthrough in Yemen’s war, Riyadh will be satisfied because despite re-establishing ties with Iran, there is nothing compelling it to cede ground to its rival in other playgrounds, like Lebanon, Syria, or Iraq.

The region could also benefit from reduced tensions and direct dialogue between the competitors, allowing the affected countries to function somewhat normally.

However, caution remains necessary.

Unless Iran and the Syrian regime make real concessions, it is unclear why Saudi Arabia would reinvest heavily in these three countries.

In Lebanon, each political camp perceived the rapprochement as being in its favor.

The pro-Hezbollah camp, which has been repeating for months that Sleiman Frangieh’s election hinges on a Saudi-Iranian deal, is claiming that its prediction will likely come true.

Meanwhile, it is anticipated that Iran will display less avarice and pursue a more restrained approach akin to that of the 1990s.

The reality is likely somewhere in between: Tehran may make tactical concessions to secure a limited agreement with Riyadh regarding Lebanon.

In other words, normalization between the two rivals may help Lebanon but it will not save it.

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan summed it up perfectly on Friday from Paris: “What Lebanon needs is a Lebanese rapprochement, not a Lebanese-Iranian-Saudi rapprochement.”

And to achieve this, it will take much more than sponsorship from Beijing.

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub. 

This marks the second time in just over 40 years that Iran and Saudi Arabia have restored diplomatic relations after breaking them off during periods of acute crisis. This highlights both the significance and fragility of their recent agreement, which was brokered under the auspices of Beijing.Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been vying for geopolitical and...