Iran-Saudi Reconciliation: Why in China?

Hongda Fan
Shanghai University professor
On March 10, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran issued a joint statement. The core content of this document is that Iran and Saudi Arabia finally reached a settlement agreement under the auspices of China. While the international community is generally surprised by the sudden breakthrough in the normalization process of Saudi-Iranian relations, China’s role as a mediator has also shocked the world.
Why China?
Saudi Arabia and Iran have held several rounds of negotiations in Iraq and Oman, as is well known. At a time when more and more regions and countries are focusing their work on development and benefiting from it, the people of the Middle East, which have suffered from too much conflicts, are more eager for peace and development. As early as April 2021, Iran and Saudi Arabia began direct negotiations in Iraq. At the presidential inauguration ceremony in August 2021, President Ebrahim Raeisi stated that the diplomatic focus of the new Iranian government is to improve relations with regional countries: “I extend the ‘hand of friendship and brotherhood’ to all countries in the region, especially neighboring countries. At the time, the statement was widely seen as Iran’s desire to improve relations with Saudi Arabia.
After the fifth round of Iraq talks in late April 2022, former Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi even stated that Iran and Saudi Arabia would be about to end the tense relationship between the two countries for years. Later, Oman also joined in the process of promoting the reconciliation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. So, in this China-Saudi-Iran joint statement, Iraq and Oman are especially thanked for hosting multiple rounds of the Riyadh-Tehran dialogue in 2021-2022. According to Iranian Journalist Abas Aslani, before the release of the joint statement by China, Saudi Arabia and Iran, the head of the Iranian delegation had a phone call with the Iraqi prime minister, thanking Iraq for hosting five rounds of Iran-Saudi talks, saying that Baghdad’s efforts invaluable in paving the way for an agreement.
So, why did Saudi Arabia and Iran sign the settlement agreement through the platform of Beijing in the end? I agree with some international observers that although Iraq and Oman played a very important role in this process, their international influence is not enough to support the final step of Saudi-Iran rapprochement.
It is very possible that a settlement agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran requires a third party to provide some guarantee conditions and support. Obviously, such a function is only available to world powers. There are currently only two world powers that can assume such a role, the United States and China. But the bad relationship between Washington and Tehran and the special relationship between the United States and Israel doom Washington to have no chance to play the role of mediator in Saudi-Iran relations. Beijing’s advantage is that it can communicate smoothly with Saudi Arabia and Iran and both countries hope to strengthen cooperation with China. Also, China is currently willing to do such a thing.
Implementing agreements is more important
The Iran-Saudi deal to restore diplomatic relations is indeed cause for celebration. But the conclusion of the agreement is only a good start, and whether the normalization process of Saudi-Iranian relations can proceed smoothly is a more critical issue. This is not only true for Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also for China. As some international observers have said, it is one thing for China to host the talks, but it is another for China to help implement the signed agreement on time. What kind of guarantees will China provide if one of the parties does not respect the agreement? Frankly speaking, although Saudi Arabia and Iran have reached an agreement to normalize relations, the contradictions between the two countries are still clearly visible.
Israel, which regards Iran as its number one enemy and is hoping to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia, is obviously not happy to see a reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett said the restoration of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran would be a serious and dangerous development for Israel, a political victory for Iran and a fatal blow to efforts to build a regional alliance against Iran. He sees the Saudi-Iran rapprochement as a complete failure for Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for Arab [Persian] Gulf States, agrees that Iran and Saudi Arabia are trying to manage their rivalry, but it remains to be seen whether Tehran and Riyadh have the political will to resist Israel’s sabotage attempts.
But in any case, China’s mediation of Saudi-Iranian relations this time is indeed a very positive and symbolic and diplomatic activity. It is indeed not easy to help Saudi Arabia and Iran, two countries with prominent contradictions, to realize the normalization of relations. China’s mediator role in this event is to be admired.
Through the successful mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, to a certain extent, the outside world can change the inherent impression that China only or mainly focuses on economic issues in the Middle East and despises issues such as security. It also allows the world to see the successful practice of the “Global Security Initiative” proposed by President Xi Jinping. If the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran make progress as scheduled, the Middle East and the world will place more expectations on China, and the possibility of China’s efforts to solve world problems will further increase. This is of course good news for a world struggling right now.

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