The world heard that Chinese diplomacy had succeeded in bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran together around a negotiating table in Beijing for four days from 6 to 10 March and that the two Middle Eastern powers had reached an agreement to resume diplomatic relations.
These relations were severed in early 2016, and they will now be restored at some time over the next two months, pending a meeting between the foreign ministers of the two powers to agree on the formalities for restoring them. In the meantime, the two countries have agreed to reactivate a security agreement they signed in 2001as well as another accord on cooperation in the field of sports and culture.
In the tripartite Beijing Communiqué released in the Chinese capital to mark the announcement, Saudi Arabia and Iran reaffirmed their commitment to basic principles in international relations, namely non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries and respect for the independent sovereignty of other states. These are two principles that the Iranians have flouted, directly and indirectly, in Arab affairs from the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran onwards and including in the Palestinian question and of course also in Saudi affairs.
The sacking of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran in February 2016 was a brazen violation of international norms governing diplomatic relations. Its sacking by “extremist elements” was in reaction to the execution by the Saudi government of a leading Shiite cleric accused and tried before the Saudi courts for fomenting sectarian hatred in Saudi Arabia.
The expected restoration of Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations and the respect of the Iranian government for the letter and the spirit of the Beijing Communiqué will contribute significantly to reducing regional tensions. It will facilitate the political resolution of some Arab crises that have been intractable for the past ten years because of the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran that has been motivated by a geopolitical power struggle on the one hand and sectarian considerations on the other.
The conflicts in Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon are cases in point. To them should be added the Iranian support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the two Palestinian resistance organisations that have been competing for power and influence in the West Bank with the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is recognised by the international community as the official interlocutor and semi-state entity of the Palestinian people.
This Iranian support has deepened the inter-Palestinian conflict and has provided the Israelis with a pretext for claiming, wrongly of course, that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side with whom to negotiate.
If the Beijing Communiqué is scrupulously respected by the Saudi and Iranian governments, and particularly the latter, the Middle East will see a regional realignment that will reflect new realities in both the regional and the international orders. It marks the growing role of both China and Russia in the Middle East and Arab politics in general, and this should be seen in the context of the larger changes taking place within relations between the US, China, and Russia.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have drawn the proper conclusions after watching the developing competition and rivalry among the three great nuclear powers. The way the US-led West has been managing the military conflict between Russia and Ukraine in order to present a picture of a polarised world consisting of “democracies” and “autocracies” has concentrated minds in both Riyadh and Tehran.
If fully implemented and joint confidence-building measures succeed in restoring goodwill and mutual trust between the Saudis and the Iranians, the big winner in this new regional realignment will be the Arab countries, among them Egypt. The latter has welcomed the Beijing Communiqué, with the Egyptian presidency expressing the hope in a statement on 11 March that it will reflect “positively on Iranian regional and international policies”.
There are also losers from the communiqué, being states and individuals that have gained from the rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the last seven years. The biggest loser here is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been actively engaged in a mirage of his own making by trying to form a so-called regional alliance that would comprise Israel and some Arab and Gulf countries to meet what he likes to call the “Iranian threat” to security and stability in the Middle East. This is part of the same logic that claims that the country he has led through six governments from 1996 to the present, with these oscillating between the right and the extreme right, has been an anchor of regional security.
Netanyahu’s idea of such a regional alliance is almost deaf to the interests of the Arab and Gulf countries. It goes without saying that once the Iranian nuclear deal of July 2015 is revived, though this is a big if in the present highly polarised international situation, no Arab country will show any interest in talking about an integrated regional anti-missile defence system to deal with a fictitious Israeli-made “Iranian threat.”
The official US reaction to the Beijing Communiqué has varied from a cold welcome of the agreement to restore diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran and a wait-and-see attitude to see whether Iran will in fact respect the 10 March deal with Saudi Arabia. A spokesman on national security at the White House said that de-escalation, diplomacy, and deterrence in the Middle East form the basis of the policy that US President Joe Biden laid out during his tour of the region last July.
The European reaction has not differed in tone or substance from the reaction in Washington. A communiqué issued by the EU said that since Saudi Arabia and Iran are two “central” countries in the Middle East, the resumption of their diplomatic relations “could” contribute to stability in the region as a whole.
The Beijing Communiqué is well-timed and ushers in a new and significant diplomatic role for China in the Middle East and the Gulf. Most importantly, it is to be hoped that it will end the unnecessary confrontation between these two important regional powers, one that has not ensured respective security and has greatly harmed people around the Middle East and particularly in Yemen and Palestine.
The Beijing Communiqué is a ray of hope for security and stability in the Middle East provided that it is respected in letter and spirit by its signatories and that the Israelis do not succeed in their expected efforts to cast doubt on its strategic significance or undermine it by any means at their disposal.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly