Iran, Saudi Arabia and China: new geopolitical triad in the Middle East?

The last weeks Porcelain It stands out as a mediating country in the normalization of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, suspended since 2016.

Meanwhile, the Joe Biden administration fails to put the Iran nuclear deal back on track and, after years of sponsoring a network of alliances between Israel and the Gulf monarchies against this country, the foreign policy of Xi Jinping has reconciled with two great rivals.

The main Chinese government motivation to intervene is to guarantee stability between interconnected regions where it has invested in infrastructure such as highways, ports, hydroelectric, nuclear, gas and oil pipelines that allow China to articulate markets and consolidate areas of influence.

This New Silk Road crosses the Middle East, where its main energy exporters are located. China imports 70% of the energy inputs it consumes.

Before the Russo-Ukrainian war, 47% of this volume came from the Middle East; since 2022, the figure has risen to 54% as it is forced to diversify its suppliers.

Since 2021, Chinese diplomacy promotes this agreement. Unlike the United States, their interests exceed the objective of guaranteeing their own security and allies as the axis of its strategy for the region.

China between Iran and Saudi Arabia

The Chinese tactic to securitize the Middle East consists of introducing incentives for cooperation based on soft terms and the advantages derived from integrating a network of alliances, probably, however, weaker.

China shakes hands with Iran.

The relevance of China is indisputable, but the agreement today constitutes a first step between two actors with an unstable relationship and with their own interests.

Saudi Arabia will seek to diversify the alliances it forges with the great powers, but this does not indicate that it will compromise its relationship with the United States. Moreover, although the agreement suggests a rosy outlook for regional cooperation, Iran will remain affected by various US sanctions that limit its commercial exchanges.

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The beginning of the month of Ramadan featured a promising conversation between the foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia, who agreed on the early reopening of embassies and consulates. Furthermore, the Saudi king himself invited the Iranian president to visit his country.

The complicated relationship between the two countries is part of a competition to lead the Middle East, since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

This relationship shows multifaceted features: periods of cooperation held by a latent tension. The conflicts that involve them raise geopolitical and identity issues (it is worth considering the schematic Sunni/Shiite division in its articulation with tribal, ethnolinguistic, partisan affinities, etc.).

By supporting actors in conflict within other States, indirectly, Iran and Saudi Arabia have fought each other.

New geopolitical triad in the Middle East?

In geopolitical terms, both States have large hydrocarbon reserves, one of the main factors that allows them to exert influence inside and outside the region and to be seen as strategic partners.

While Saudi Arabia leads the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Iran is an ally of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and of various actors in Iraq.

protests in tehran
Protests in Tehran, capital of Saudi Arabia.

The Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 presented new opportunities for this competition: soon, both intervened in conflicts such as the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, where Saudi Arabia supports internationally recognized Yemeni government and has carried out attacks against Houthi rebels backed militarily by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Other incidents that strained this relationship were the stampede in Mecca in 2015, the execution of the Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr in 2016, and the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, events that cemented the eventual rupture of diplomatic ties.

Iran and Saudi Arabia: what can be expected?

It is prudent to relativize its potential impact. We cannot deduce that China is today the main foreign power in the region, replacing the United States.

It is true that Iran finds here a respite from a prolonged isolation while dealing with a series of internal economic, social and political crises, given the redoubled conservatism defended by the government of Ebrahim Raisi.

The protests against gender violence grew and articulated, in an intergenerational and intersectional way, the demands of heterogeneous groups among themselves that face the police repression exercised by the government.

The agreement will not resolve this situation: it may have a relative positive impact if there is a gradual opening to new markets, alleviating a cinflationary Lima and growing unemploymentbut nevertheless it would not neutralize the popular mobilization described against not only the government but also the political regime itself.

This agreement augurs other similar ones between Iran with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Iran’s foreign policy was rewarded without compromising its interests, and thus its position could become more intransigent in nuclear negotiations with the United States.

gulf war
gulf warwhen a coalition of 34 countries invaded Kuwait, from August 1990 to February 1991.

However, Iran is also committed to the International Atomic Energy Agency and its discussion with the entity is independent of such antagonism.

potentially, the Revolutionary Guard would stop equipping the Houthis in Yemen, but it is hard to believe that they decisively influence their agenda. That is why it is exaggerated to think that, as a result of the agreement, the Saudi crown will stop seeing the Houthis as a threat.

Persian Gulf, Arabian Gulf or Chinese Gulf?

Let’s remember that there are no reconciliation processes in Yemen that call for dialogue and that the United Arab Emirates intervenes with its own agenda in the conflict.

At last, the deal is far from disarticulating the logic of a civil war: it simply it neutralizes the reciprocal threat between Saudis and Houthis and, by extension, between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The latter country will continue to support Hezbollah, of which the Saudi crown is particularly suspicious, and al-Assad, which is a cause for concern.

Yes, the recent tension between Lebanon and the GCC could dissipate and stop the process of economic and political destabilization that has affected the country for years. But it is necessary to be moderate, since the presidential acephaly, the economic crisis and that of his political system are due to multiple causes, not all of them directly affected by regional dynamics.

The agreement neutralizes the reciprocal threat between the Saudis and the Houthis and, by extension, between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Syria is still ruled de facto by al-Assad. The agreement could reverse the isolation of the country, reinsert it in the Arab League and relaunch commercial exchanges that facilitate the institutional reconstruction from the central power. But this need not be immediate, nor does it mean a Saudi benefit to al-Assad’s legitimacy.

Saudi Arabia seeks a new reputation. For this reason, it diversifies its production and calls for a transition to clean energy. Its policy of modernizing values ​​and expanding rights for women and minorities does not agree with supporting a pariah regime, isolated by sanctions and too closely linked to Russia.

In itself, the agreement inaugurates or increases the potential for cooperation between actors with defined interests and reflects more of a gesture of tactical pragmatism that of subordination to a new power.

*Dr. In Social Sciences (UBA), Head of the Middle East Department at IRI, UNLP; CONICET / / IDAES, UNSAM

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