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China leaps into Saudi-Iran diplomacy as nuclear talks move

Iranian official says next move on prisoner exchange depends on US.

China’s giant step in Middle East diplomacy 

It’s hard to overstate the impact of resumed diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia — and that it was China that made it happen.  

China has until now had a business- and energy-first approach to the Middle East, preferring to abstain from the diplomatic and security charge held, mostly unchallenged, by the United States. 

Not anymore. 

A Saudi-Iran rapprochement is one for the diplomatic A team. It’s a major step to de-escalate the most critical fault line between the Gulf’s largest and most powerful countries. It opens the door to more progress to end the war in Yemen.

The agreement followed weeklong meetings between Saudi national security adviser Musaad Al-Aiban and his Iranian counterpart Ali Shamkhani, mediated by Wang Yi of the Chinese Communist Party's Political Bureau. Iraq and Oman had sponsored earlier talks between Iranian and Saudi officials. 

It all happens the week the US released its "Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community," in which China has the starring role as global adversary number one, and as the Chinese People's Congress gave Xi Jinping an unprecedented third term as president.

US Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf, speaking at an Al-Monitor Pro event Thursday, said that US is neither seeking a cold war nor asking US partners to take sides against China, but will instead give priority to preventing China’s accessing US technology. 

Saudi Arabia plays its own cards 

Beijing’s mediation may signal a willingness to deepen its ties not only with Iran and Russia, but to play in what has been Washington’s side of the diplomatic field in Riyadh. 

The deal is of course a two-way, or even three-way street; a four-way if we view Russia as part of the landscape as well. 

Saudi Arabia, for its part, is playing the China card in a way that shows a more independent approach. The agreement comes as the Wall Street Journal reported this week that the kingdom has sought US security assurances and nuclear aid to advance Saudi normalization with Israel. And meanwhile, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud was in Moscow this week, another sign that it is not chucking its key OPEC+ ally either.   

Iran’s Russia, China hedge 

Iran’s leaders view Russia and China as vital to strategic depth, given its adversarial relations with the US and Israel. A nuclear agreement with the US and the West, especially following the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018, is considered a long shot (but not dead; more below). US presidential elections are looming in 2024, and Republicans will take a predictably hawkish stand on Iran.

Iran considers itself a global player, not just a regional one. It straddles Asia as well as the Middle East. In its score, its peers are as much or more Russia and China, than the Arab states. Saudi Arabia is not considered a major threat by Iran, except as a partner and proxy for Washington. With the deal, Iran wants to take the Saudi piece off the chess table.

Russia has become central to US-Iran tensions. The US has called out Iran for backing Russia in the war in Ukraine.    

Leaf told Al-Monitor’s audience that “Iran has entered the European battle space in a highly destructive way,” by selling drones to Russia, calling Moscow and Tehran "two pariahs joining together to wreak havoc." 

Mikhail Ivanovich Ulyanov, Russia's permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, told Al-Monitor that reports of Russian drone purchases from Iran “are absolutely speculative and groundless in nature.” 

Semafor broke the story this week of Iran’s plans to purchase Russian fighter jets.

Iranian officials have told Al-Monitor that Tehran is ready for separate talks on Ukraine, while denying that it is providing armed drones to Russia.

Iran’s relationship with Russia, more than China, is both a hedge and a chit. Iran has no vital interest in Ukraine, beyond its hedge with Russia to counter and frustrate the US. The bilateral relationship has always been more handshake than embrace. It all also depends on the Ukraine war itself. Iran could be open to a better deal, or stay the course, until there is the prospect of a negotiated peace, which Iran has says it supports.

Pressure increases for prisoner exchange 

Calling in to CNN from Evin Prison, where he has been detained since 2015 for "relations with a hostile state" (the United States), Siamak Namazi implored US President Joe Biden to put politics aside and “end this nightmare” for himself and two other Americans held on similar specious charges.

Morad Tahbaz and Emad Shargi have been detained since 2018 and 2020, respectively. 

Namazi also appealed to the government of Iran to “summon that same spirit of humanity" when it released Siamak’s ailing father, Baqer Namazi, and allowed him to reunite with his family abroad.

A senior Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor that there was “no political reason” for allowing the call, adding that it was approved as a “humanitarian issue upon his [Siamak’s] request.”

The high-profile appeal by Namazi could also signal that an exchange of prisoners with the United States, a transaction that would likely include a release of as much as $7 billion in frozen assets from South Korea, may be closer than ever.

“We have been ready for an exchange from almost two years ago,” the Iranian official told Al-Monitor. “You may ask the US about the next step.”

Whether the CNN conversation included some choreography with the US, or with intermediaries such as Oman or Qatar, it succeeded in turning up the heat on Biden to secure the release of the three. Biden spoke with Oman Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said about their case on Tuesday. Namazi’s appeal was eloquent, emotional and undeniably powerful. An exchange would give both sides vital humanitarian cover and context for a politically sensitive transaction, especially if the US releases billions in Iranian frozen assets.   

Jared Genser, pro bono counsel to the Namazi family, refuted the Iranian official’s account that Tehran allowed the call with CNN.

“Claims by an anonymous Iranian official that Siamak Namazi been ‘approved’ to make the call to CNN are total lies. I’ve been speaking with Siamak regularly over years and while we always assume we are being listened to, not once has he ever been confronted by any prison official with information from any call. The regime doesn’t have the resources to translate every call made in English into Farsi," Genser told Al-Monitor.

Turnaround in nuclear file 

Meanwhile, an Iranian nuclear deal, if not JCPOA, may be back in play. 

Iran staved off another censure resolution by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog, this week by agreeing, in a joint statement signed during IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi’s visit to Iran March 3-4, to voluntarily “allow the IAEA to implement further appropriate verification and monitoring activities” while moving ahead to close outstanding issues regarding safeguards arrangements at three locations, a dispute that has become a stumbling block for Iran in the JCPOA talks.  

Grossi’s trip to Iran came amidst heightened concerns after particles of uranium enriched at 83.7%, just below the weapons-grade level of 90%, were found at one of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Al-Monitor had the scoop here that, in the absence of the JCPOA, Iran would still adhere its safeguards commitments under the NPT.

Grossi said today that follow-up technical discussions will be held in Iran in 7-10 days.

There is a bit of déjà vu in all this. Exactly one year ago this month, the IAEA and Iran agreed on a "road map" to resolve the outstanding safeguards questions, which subsequently collapsed. Iran made resolution of the issue a condition of the JCPOA talks. 

If the IAEA and Iran get some traction on the safeguards file, it could signal a step toward a return to nuclear diplomacy around "less-for-less" arrangement in the absence of the JCPOA.

If the IAEA-Iran agreement is implemented, “it will be positive for the JCPOA because it will make it easier to go back to the nuclear pact if we finally have such an agreement,” Enrique Mora, chief of staff to Josep Borrell, EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, told Al-Monitor on Monday. 

Ulyanov told Al-Monitor, that “if the talks resume, it will not be a problem for us to work along with all other parties involved,” adding that “obviously not everything depends on us.” 

“Iran has ostensibly made commitments. We’ll see if they follow through,” Leaf said Thursday. 

Update: March 11, 2023. This article has been updated with a comment from the Namazi family’s lawyer.

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