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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

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China brokers Iran-Saudi reconciliation

Go return, for For a moment, return to the quieter days of late 2015, when Saudi Arabia and Iran established diplomatic relations for the last time. They are at odds in Syria, where they support opposing sides in the civil war against Bashar al-Assad, and in Yemen, much of which has fallen to the Houthi rebel group, a Shia rebel group. Iran is outraged by reports that Saudi police sexually assaulted young Iranian pilgrims at Jeddah airport. Four years ago, the United States accused Iran of plotting to assassinate the country’s ambassador to Washington.

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Then, a day after the calendar flipped to 2016, Saudi Arabia executed dissident Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Mobs in Iran ransacked Saudi diplomatic missions in the capital Tehran and the holy city of Mashhad. The kingdom quickly severed ties with the Islamic Republic.

On March 10, the two arch-rivals abruptly agreed to end their seven-year rift. The deal made exciting headlines in the Middle East and the United States. For the former, it seemed to mark the end of a protracted and devastating proxy war. The latter was less interested in content than in location: it was signed not in a regional capital but in China, a country that has so far played no major role in the Middle East’s tumultuous diplomacy.

Both reactions were a bit over the top. The agreement is transactional, not transformational. The two countries will be at loggerheads as they were before 2016. China’s involvement is more interesting, but still overblown: the deal fell into its arms. Iran and Saudi Arabia have good reason to praise its role. But it is unlikely to be the new regional peacemaker.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been talking about reconciliation for years. Such talks have gained more urgency in recent months, largely because both countries are exhausted. Over the past decade, the Saudis have failed in their major foreign policy maneuvers, whether they have tried to oust Mr Assad or topple the Houthis. Iran’s victory, if it was a victory at all, has been outweighed: It has succeeded abroad but seething at home as young people rage at a collapsing economy and a corrupt dictatorship.

Saudi Arabia’s top priority is to emerge from the war in Yemen that started in March 2015. Eight years later and hundreds of thousands dead, the Houthis still control much of the country, and the war has only pushed them toward Iran. The mullahs now provide the Houthis with weapons, money and training.

Saudi Arabia is eager to strike a deal with the Houthis that would put the group in power in exchange for an end to cross-border missile and drone attacks. For months, they had hoped that Iran would pressure the Houthis to accept. Therefore, the Saudi-Iran deal could herald a separate deal for Yemen. This will not end the conflict, which is a civil war until the Saudi-led coalition intervenes. But it would provide the kingdom with a face-saving exit.

The deal could also have implications for Tehran International, a satellite television channel launched in London in 2017 to deliver relentless criticism of the Iranian regime. Its boss denies any direct links to the Saudi government. Nonetheless, the Iranian government has asked Saudi Arabia to take control of the channel.

Those demands increased when street protests gripped Iran in September. The Iranian regime has also begun threatening journalists who work internationally for Iran. Last month, the channel said it would move broadcasts to Washington.

All of this heralds an era of friendship between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Their ideological debate dates back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. The Saudis will still worry about Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and its network of proxies in Arab countries. For its part, Iran will continue to see Saudi involvement in its (self-inflicted) domestic turmoil.

Still, the treaty could reduce the chances of a Cold War heating up. United Arab Emirates (United Arab Emirates) came to a similar conclusion. It restored full relations with Iran last year, downgrading after the 2016 attack on the Saudi embassy. United Arab Emirates Last year’s drone attack on its capital, Abu Dhabi, unnerved Iran and feared it could face retaliation for a possible Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

In the U.SThese points seem to be secondary. The focus is on the countries that broker the deals, not the signatories. Michael Singer of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace Policy, a think tank, tweeted: “Seeing China’s role here will not warm Washington’s heart.”

This is an undeniable shift in China’s role. In 2021, Wang Yi, then Foreign Minister, proposed a “five-point plan” for Middle East peace, which was full of clichéd slogans such as “advocating mutual respect” and “maintaining equality and justice”. These empty words are the scope of China’s diplomacy in the region. Now, China is playing a more overt role.

Still, a caveat is warranted. With the encouragement of the United States, most of the diplomatic activity is conducted not in China but in Iraq and Oman. China just helped push the deal through. And it’s hard to see how China could repeat the same mistakes. It cautiously dipped its toes into the swamp of peace in Israel and Palestine, but no one expected it to wade further.

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have reason to emphasize China’s involvement. In 2021, the Iranians signed a 25-year “strategic partnership” with China. President Ebrahim Raisi wants his countrymen to see economic ties with China as a substitute for ties with the West. As for the Saudis, they hosted Xi at a big summit in December. China is their largest trading partner and the world’s largest buyer of oil exports. After two cold years for Mr Biden, it doesn’t hurt to remind Americans that the kingdom has other powerful friends.

Everyone benefits from it — at least a little bit. Saudi Arabia could ease tensions with its ruthless neighbor. Iran’s ultraconservative regime can be open to diplomacy. China can claim a diplomatic victory. But the fundamental problem remains. This deal is more about perception than reality.

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