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Analysis

China triumphs with Saudi-Iran deal, but devil in implementation

The deal marks a turning point in Middle Eastern politics, but China may find its role undermined by failures in implementation.
A man in Tehran holds a local newspaper reporting on its front page the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, signed in Beijing the previous day, March 11, 2023.

China’s role in the Saudi-Iranian deal is momentous. However, Beijing may find that its relations in the region are undermined by failures in its implementation.

Last Friday marked a profound turning point in Middle Eastern politics. With the signing of an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to resume diplomatic relations and respect each other’s sovereignty, there is no denying that change is in the air. The question is: Will it last?

The two sides, locked in a bitter rivalry since the Islamic Revolution in Iran over four decades ago, have shunned each other since 2016 following the execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia and the subsequent storming of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran by protesters. At the heart of this rivalry is their conflicting desire to shape regional politics to their liking.

It is no small feat, therefore, that the two states have finally agreed to reopen their embassies and work toward reestablishing relations. Following successive rounds of negotiations hosted by Iraq and Oman, it is particularly interesting that the final deal was hammered out in Beijing.

China’s balancing strategy in the Middle East

For China, this is not business as usual. To ensure reliable access to diversified energy sources, the success of the Belt and Road Initiative, and to have a diverse list of friends with varying quality ties with the West, Beijing’s modus operandi has been fairly consistent since Iran’s revolution: to develop and maintain good relations with all regional states regardless of acrimony between them. Bilateral ties have flourished, even in controversial areas, but Beijing has avoided taking an active role in negotiating peace between regional rivals. The avoidance of exposure to criticism has been central to this balancing strategy.

This relationship balancing strategy has seen China arm both Iran and Iraq throughout their conflict in the 1980s, support Iran’s nuclear development and then abruptly stop following intense pressure from Washington in the late 1990s, and join United Nations Security Council partners in sanctioning Iran over its nuclear development while circumventing said sanctions to trade with Tehran.

Keen to develop and foster its relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, Beijing has often kept its nose out of their disputes. Indeed, during his tour of the Middle East in 2016, a mere few weeks after the Saudi-Iranian diplomatic rupture, President Xi Jinping made sure to sign a comprehensive strategic partnership with each state.

This was against a backdrop of concerted neutrality regarding their dispute. Indeed, when asked whether China would mediate, Assistant Foreign Minister Zhang Ming simply said, “China has always taken a balanced and just position.” A mere seven years ago, but when things were tough, China was not there to patch things up between its two partners.

Prospects for the deal

Herein lies the issue. The reestablishment of diplomatic ties is undoubtedly a step in the right direction for Middle Eastern security. However, Riyadh and Tehran have numerous obstacles that they must overcome if they genuinely hope to foster relations. The conflict in Yemen, Iran’s nuclear development and the regional activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are among the challenges that need to be dealt with.

Tom Walsh, doctoral researcher at Durham University and expert in Saudi-Iranian relations, discusses the issue of Yemen.“Iran have gradually increased their support for the Houthis in Yemen since the war began in 2015. They have recognized them as the legitimate government and welcomed a Houthi ambassador to Tehran. Widely regarded as an attempt at goading the Saudis, they have leveraged this relationship in peace negotiations. It is likely that Iran will make concessions in Yemen, a country that does not represent significant geostrategic interest to the Islamic Republic. Only time will tell.”

Indeed, only time will tell in all of these key areas of risk. Most long-term observers of Saudi Arabia-Iran relations are rightly skeptical as to whether the two sides will be able to translate the spirit of the deal into a genuine rapprochement. Even avoiding further conflict would be a step in the right direction, but a genuine challenge for both parties.

China’s role going forward

As the broker of the deal, or at least the third-party country listed in the statement, the key question is whether China will — or even can — realistically underwrite or support the translation of the agreement into practice.

The first issue is one of capabilities. Unlike Washington, China’s power projection capabilities are highly limited. With its sole foreign military base in Djibouti, and no substantial security architecture in the region, Beijing would be unable to enforce the deal with the use — or threat — of force. While this very absence of military might may be a source of soft power for China in the eyes of regional states, given that it signals a genuine desire to avoid interfering in other states’ affairs, Beijing cannot protect key assets in the region or respond to transgressions. Beijing is still reliant on Washington in this regard.

The second, and far more pressing, issue is one of willingness. China’s role in brokering the deal is unlikely to see it raise its head above the parapet if violence or tensions erupt. Beijing has expended decades of diplomatic effort to cultivate good relations with all regional states. We are simply unlikely to see China risk blowing it all by siding with one partner at the expense of the other.

Both the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Iran have had their grumbles regarding China’s relations with the other. Many commentators in Saudi Arabia were left unhappy with China’s 25-year agreement with Iran in 2021. Similarly, Iranian officials were angry following a recent Chinese statement that undermined Tehran’s position on the three disputed islands in the Strait of Hormuz.

Officials in Beijing are under no illusion of the challenges they face in balancing ties with both the GCC states and Iran. Indeed, this may partly explain their decision to host a summit between Arab monarchs and Iran in the coming period. It is interesting, to say the least, that Beijing is now opting to place itself at the center of this affair.

Fundamentally, this deal comes down to the two regional states (and indeed the other GCC states). If they play ball, China can claim a monumental victory in Middle Eastern diplomacy. If, as is more likely, tensions surface, Beijing will find that it has overstretched. It will almost certainly be unable and unwilling to act as a guarantor of the deal. For a quick diplomatic win, China has placed its policy of neutrality in jeopardy. The current question from China’s perspective is whether it will retain the respect of all parties if the agreement fails.

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