Cooperation rather than confrontation?
In a momentous deal that could very well bring considerable change to the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two major powers in the region (apart from Turkey) have announced that they will be resuming diplomatic relations. This turnaround, brought about by China's intercession, could have far-reaching implications. After all, the rivalry between the two countries has spawned numerous conflicts in the region, whether in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon or Syria. What will now happen when the powers behind the proxy wars meet at the negotiating table?
Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to re-open embassies in each other's countries within two months. Trade relations are apparently also to be resumed and, perhaps most importantly for the regional conflicts, cooperation in the area of security is planned.
The details of all these plans have yet to be specified. Likewise unclear is what concessions each country has made to the other so that the deal could be signed. In many ways, the agreement has raised more questions than it answers.
The two nations broke off diplomatic relations in 2016. But they have been arch-rivals vying for dominance in the region for much longer than that. Indeed, it is their rivalry that has shaped the political landscape in the Middle East over the past two decades. Many conflicts have arisen because of it. And it has also prevented the resolution of a number of pre-existing disputes. At first glance, the rapprochement between the two countries is at least a step that could help to defuse several regional conflicts.
Western media have not yet grasped the enormity of the change
So this is indeed a big story. Had this deal been brokered not in Beijing, but in Washington or a European capital, the Western media would surely have been tracking it closely. But the fact that such an important agreement has been concluded in faraway Beijing is in itself a sign that the international world order is changing. The media, however, is still clinging to the old ways of the world, when only the USA and Europe managed to promote themselves as supposedly honest brokers of regional conflicts.
The problem is that, when it comes to the Middle East, both have in the meantime forfeited that role. Given their poor relations with Iran, and the fact that Saudi Arabia is one of the key American allies in the region, they were unable to act as mediators in this case. And so China stepped in to take advantage of the situation. Beijing has scored points here in its quest to enhance its role in the region, where stability is in its best interest, especially to ensure the country's much-needed supply of oil and gas.
The deal is therefore also testament to the diminishing role of the USA in the Middle East. Still, neither the USA nor Europe is presumably unhappy about this outcome. After all, reasonably well-functioning relations between Tehran and Riyadh could prove to be an important factor in stabilising the entire Middle East region. The interests of China, the USA and Europe intersect here to a great extent.
Hope for Yemen?
The international energy industry is likely also breathing a sigh of relief. Just four years ago, attacks on Saudi oil facilities by what were allegedly Iranian drones shocked the global oil economy. The drones had struck a sensitive global supply point and Saudi Arabia had to cut its oil production in half overnight. This meant that the global oil market lost five percent of its supply of black gold. Such attacks should now be a thing of the past.
The first conflict in the region that the new Iranian-Saudi rapprochement could defuse and perhaps even finally resolve is the war in Yemen, which has now been raging for eight years. Iran supports the Houthi rebels, while Saudi Arabia is directly involved in the war. There have been repeated peace talks and ceasefire plans in recent years.
WIth respect to the war in Yemen, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been negotiating directly with each other since 2021, with delegates meeting in both Iraq and Oman. Each time they parted without having achieved any tangible results. It is likely, though, that some preliminary work was done at these meetings that led to the current deal in Beijing.
The question is: how to hit the ball back into Yemen's court? Perhaps this disastrous war, which the UN refers to as the greatest human-made humanitarian catastrophe today, can now be brought to an end once and for all if its two main sponsors sit down together to earnestly seek a resolution.
Both sides may indeed have come to the realisation that there is nothing more to be gained militarily in this stalemate, leading both to seek an exit strategy. What happens next in Yemen might very well be written into one of the undisclosed sections of the Beijing agreement.
The struggle for influence in Iraq and Lebanon
The second area of conflict is Iraq. Here, too, the issue is the respective influence wielded by the regional powers. Shia religious parties backed by Iran have dominated the political scene in Baghdad for many years. But Iraqi resentment of Iran's grip is growing more vehement, even in Shia circles and especially among younger Iraqis.
This bitterness can be attributed to how the country has increasingly degenerated in recent years into a storehouse where Shia parties and militias help themselves and has thus become completely paralysed by political power struggles. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, holds sway in the Sunni section of the country. It remains to be seen how the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement will manifest itself here and perhaps serve to ease tensions. For the regime in Tehran in particular, however, maintaining influence over Iraq remains vital.
The same can be said for Lebanon, where the Iran-backed Hezbollah operates as a state within a state, while Saudi Arabia has repeatedly sought to contain Iranian influence with the help of the country's Sunnis and the Hariri political dynasty. Its efforts have thus far been in vain. What is certain is that Tehran will not simply let Hezbollah be wrested from its hands as a political tool. But the Shia party will perhaps prove more willing to compromise with other political forces without giving up its supremacy.
Normalisation with Assad?
That leaves Syria. Especially since the devastating earthquake in February, some Arab states have tried to take advantage of the situation to normalise relations with Bashar Al-Assad's regime. The United Arab Emirates even took the initiative beforehand and reopened an embassy in Damascus.
We must not forget, however, that Syria's membership in the Arab League has been suspended since 2011 due to the regime's brutal treatment of the opposition. Along with Russia, Iran is one of Assad's key supporters in the region. And that is precisely why Saudi Arabia has so far opposed any Arab normalisation with the regime in Damascus, so as not to give its rival Iran an advantage. Here, too, there could now be some new developments.
If the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement is in earnest, the cards in the region will certainly be reshuffled. Exactly which hand Iran and Saudi Arabia will then play in each of the conflicts remains to be seen. But at least the arch-rivals are talking to each other again and sitting down together at the same card table.
© Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor