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Four factors to watch to assess the Saudi-Iranian diplomatic opening

By Brian Katulis, Vice President of Policy, at Middle East Institute

  • The fact that China played such a visible role in finalizing and announcing the Saudi-Iranian agreement to resume diplomatic ties is the most notable thing so far about the deal.

  • The relative importance of this diplomatic opening will depend on whether it leads to decreased Iranian destabilizing actions, produces a new diplomatic channel on Iran’s nuclear program, allows Beijing to build on its role in the region, and creates fresh incentives for Israel to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians.

The surprise Iranian-Saudi agreement brokered by China could help advance broader stability in the region if the parties live up to the general commitments expressed in the reporting on the deal. Iran and Saudi Arabia announced in Beijing on Friday that they will re-open embassies after a seven-year cutoff of ties, work to revive a security pact, and resume bilateral trade, investment, and cultural accords. The fact that China played such a visible role in finalizing and announcing this agreement is the most notable thing so far about the deal.

The general agreement comes after years of efforts to bridge divides between the two countries. Iran and Saudi Arabia had met at least half a dozen times directly and in regional forums over the past three years as part of multiple lines of effort to reduce regional tensions.

As we wait to see how things develop, four aspects in particular are worth watching:

1. Will this lead to a reduction of Iran’s attacks against Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states? Iran has conducted a series of attacks using missiles, drones, and cyberattacks against key sites in the kingdom and the neighboring United Arab Emirates over the past five years. In addition, Iran has sponsored several terrorist plots in the Gulf. A main test of this agreement is, thus, whether it produces progress toward stabilizing the region.

2. Will this create a new diplomatic channel to address Iran’s nuclear program? Like many other regional and outside powers, Saudi Arabia is deeply concerned about Iran’s nuclear program. For years, the main forum for engaging Iran in diplomatic efforts has been the P5+1 talks (involving the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, China, and France, along with Germany), which did not fully integrate the concerns of key countries in the Middle East. President Joe Biden’s plan A, of rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, hasn’t worked out yet, so the Beijing-brokered Saudi-Iranian talks may offer some limited hope for a new avenue. If these bilateral negotiations are to be meaningful and impactful, however, they will have to tackle regional concerns about Iran’s nuclear program — otherwise, the opening will be just optics.

3. Will China build on this diplomatic engagement to expand its role in the region? China is dependent on the Gulf region’s energy resources for its economic rise, much more so than America or Europe. It has sought to reduce tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia before. The U.S. increasingly recognizes regions like the Middle East as arenas of strategic competition with other great powers, which isn’t exclusively limited to the military sphere — it involves economic, technological, and diplomatic moves too. The fact that China visibly brokered this agreement is an important sign of its increased engagement in the region and Beijing’s desire to see a de-escalation of tensions. More and more, when America pulls back diplomatically from a part of the world, China stands ready to fill the gap left behind by U.S. disengagement.

4. What does it mean for possible Israeli-Saudi ties? Israel’s new government led by Benjamin Netanyahu initially responded negatively to the deal, in line with its more assertive posture toward Iran compared to that of the previous Israeli government. Time and again over the past few months, Netanyahu and his ministers have hinted that additional kinetic actions against Iran’s nuclear program might be necessary. Last January, the U.S. and Israel conducted their biggest bilateral military exercise to date, in large part to send such a signal to Iran.

The diplomatic opening mediated by Chinese could produce a tactical and operational gap between Israel and Saudi Arabia on how to proceed with Iran and its nuclear program, potentially limiting Israel’s military and kinetic options; or it could result in a new diplomatic approach since neither the Saudis nor the Israelis want to see Iran getting a nuclear weapon or persist with its destabilizing regional actions and support for terrorism. The actual outcome will depend on how deep this new opening between Tehran and Riyadh is.

Still, a broader opening between Israel and Saudi Arabia seems unlikely anytime soon without progress on the Palestinian front. Despite quiet investment and economic efforts — building on years of behind-the-scenes intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation — Saudi Arabia needs to see some progress on Palestine before opening ties with Israel, and that seems impossible with the present Israeli government and its posture toward the Palestinians.

The Abraham Accords are to Benjamin Netanyahu what the 2015 Iran nuclear deal was to Barack Obama: both leaders saw these as key diplomatic accomplishments. Netanyahu wants nothing more than to see a broader normalization that includes Saudi Arabia. That means Saudi Arabia has a great deal of potential diplomatic leverage with Israel on the Palestinian front should Riyadh choose to use it.

Follow on Twitter: @Katulis

Second publication by courtesy of Middle East Institute, Original-Text


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