By Huma Kashif
In recent times, the unexpected thaw in Saudi-Iran relations has sparked significant regional and global interest. The agreement, forged in Beijing, has marked a pivotal moment in the geopolitics of the Middle East, with ripple effects that extend far beyond the region. One of the key beneficiaries of this diplomatic breakthrough is Russia, which stands to gain substantially from the newfound stability and cooperation in the Gulf.
Long-Escalated Rivalry: Context:
The longstanding rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has deep historical, religious, and geopolitical roots. It dates back more than four decades and has persisted despite a brief period of détente in the 1990s. In recent years, tensions have heightened, leading to the formal severing of diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Tehran seven years ago.
The competition between these regional powerhouses has contributed to devastating conflicts in the Middle East, including the wars in Yemen and Syria. Their rivalries have also fueled instability in Lebanon and Iraq. Several Gulf Arab states have been on edge due to direct threats from Iranian proxies and alleged Iranian support for dissident movements. Simultaneously, Israel perceives Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat, while Tehran accuses Israel of sabotaging its nuclear ambitions and Saudi Arabia of supporting opposition groups and hostile Iranian diaspora media.
The agreement to restore diplomatic relations, brokered by China, marks a pivotal moment in the history of this conflict, offering hope for regional stability and cooperation.
Recent Rapprochement and Motives Behind
In an unexpected turn of events, on March 10, 2023 representatives from Iran and Saudi Arabia emerged from secret negotiations in Beijing, China, to announce a historic agreement to restore diplomatic relations. This breakthrough, facilitated by China, marks a significant development in the complex and longstanding rivalry between these two Middle Eastern powers. The region has been marred by decades of tension and conflict between Tehran and Riyadh, with the situation escalating over the past two decades. Riyadh officially severed ties with Tehran seven years ago, making this reconciliation even more remarkable.
This diplomatic overture had been brewing for some time, as Iraq and Oman had previously hosted rounds of talks between Iranian and Saudi officials. However, the involvement of China in mediating the accord came as a surprise, and the rapid progress of this reconciliation has captured global attention. The signing of the Joint Trilateral Statement by China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia leaves us wondering whether this marks the beginning of a geopolitical shift in the region, where China takes on a more prominent role in an area long dominated by the United States.
While the ramifications of this agreement are still uncertain, there are crucial questions at play that whether the Beijing agreement would contribute to the resolution of conflicts elsewhere in the Middle East. The longstanding regional agendas of Riyadh and Tehran have exacerbated devastating wars in Yemen and Syria, and they continue to fuel instability in Lebanon and Iraq. Several Gulf Arab states have expressed concerns about direct threats from Iranian proxies and alleged Iranian support for dissident movements. Israel, on the other hand, perceives Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat. In return, Tehran accuses Israel of sabotaging its nuclear program and Saudi Arabia of supporting opposition groups in troubled provinces, along with hostile Iranian diaspora media.
The restoration of diplomatic ties, facilitated by China, is a win for both Iran and Saudi Arabia and, by extension, for the entire Middle East. To capitalize on this historic opportunity, Saudi Arabia must adopt a new approach, ceasing its military intervention in Yemen and halting attacks by groups backed by Iran. A more positive and constructive approach, akin to its “Vision 2030,” should be embraced to engage Iran in dialogues for regional development.
China’s role as a mediator in this reconciliation is a welcome step, offering technological and resource support to both countries. The United States has also embraced this development, viewing it as an important milestone in the Middle East, but with some reservations stemming from the ongoing US-Iran rivalry.
This agreement has the potential to bring together major regional powers, including China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, forming a new quad alliance. This forum can be a platform for cooperation on geopolitical and geo-economic fronts. Pakistan, for instance, can seek support and security coverage from India through this platform, while Iran can find similar support in countering the threats it faces from Israel.
Regardless of the interests and intentions behind this agreement, it is heartening to witness both Iran and Saudi Arabia at the negotiation table, working towards regional stability and the restoration of bilateral ties. Now, the focus must shift to the outcomes of this deal, with the aim of reducing tensions between the two Muslim-majority nations and establishing an acceptable security order for the region.
In light of these challenges, the recent development in bilateral relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia signifies a breakthrough in a decades-long rivalry. The restoration of ties has profound implications for Iran, which has faced increasing isolation due to its human rights record, sanctions related to its controversial nuclear program, and its support for Russia in the Ukraine conflict. The agreement can be seen as a diplomatic victory for Tehran.
Moreover, this agreement underscores Iran’s intention to de-escalate tensions across the Middle East with Saudi Arabia, offering the prospect of economic growth for both nations. Following the agreement’s announcement, the Iranian currency gained value against the US dollar, partially recovering from a decline triggered by nationwide protests over the extrajudicial killing of Mahsa Amini.
Russia’s Gains from Saudi-Iran Rapprochement: A Gulf of Opportunities
The recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran presents a significant opportunity for Russia. This diplomatic breakthrough in the Gulf region can offer Russia economic benefits, enhance its political standing, and provide diplomatic leverage in a complex geopolitical landscape.
Here, we explore why the Saudi-Iran normalization is a strategic advantage for Russia.
1. Economic Benefits
Russia finds itself increasingly reliant on the Gulf region due to Western sanctions imposed after its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Both Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have significantly increased their trade with Russia, providing Moscow with an economic lifeline. The Saudi-Iran normalization presents an opportunity for Russia to deepen its economic relationships with both nations, mitigating the risk of potential economic backlash from either side.
Moreover, Russia is strategically invested in the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), a trade route that connects the country to the Gulf and the Indian Ocean via Azerbaijan and Iran. The success of this project hinges on regional stability, and the Saudi-Iran agreement is poised to enhance the prospects of the INSTC. Russia is actively promoting the project at the highest levels, with President Vladimir Putin encouraging Russian businesses to invest in it. With increased stability in the Gulf, the INSTC becomes more appealing to international investors.
2. Political Advantages
From a political standpoint, Russia seeks to resolve the Syrian crisis to redirect its resources toward the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. While Saudi-Iran tensions are not the primary driver of the Syrian conflict, improved relations between these two countries can facilitate progress in this regard. Russia is keen to minimize distractions from its primary theater of conflict and has been promoting dialogue between various actors in Syria. The invitation extended by Saudi Arabia to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to attend the Arab League summit in Riyadh in May represents a positive signal for Russia, potentially leading to Assad’s return to the Arab world. This development could contribute to stabilizing the situation in Syria, thereby reducing Russia’s responsibilities in the region.
3. Diplomatic Leverage
The Saudi-Iran normalization could also bolster Russia’s efforts to create multilateral bodies as counterweights to Western influence, particularly within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Saudi Arabia’s approval as a dialogue partner of the SCO, immediately following the agreement with Iran, highlights the potential for greater diplomatic heft and relevance in line with Moscow’s strategic objectives.
4. The China Challenge
While Russia stands to gain much from the Saudi-Iran rapprochement, it also faces a significant challenge in the form of China. Beijing’s role in mediating the Saudi-Iran deal underscores the fact that Russia is not the sole non-Western diplomatic power in the region. China’s greater resources and capacity to act as a prominent player may present a challenge to Russia’s influence. Regional negotiations and key issues may increasingly see a reconfiguration of power toward Beijing, including discussions to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. This dynamic highlights that regional powers are exploring alternative global actors beside Russia for their assistance on critical matters.
To summarize, the Saudi-Iran normalization has the potential to bring several advantages to Russia, including economic benefits, political opportunities, and diplomatic leverage. However, it is essential to acknowledge the growing influence of China in the region, which may complicate Russia’s position. As Russia navigates its tensions with the West, the dynamics in the Gulf region are undoubtedly changing, and Moscow must adapt to seize the opportunities and address the challenges that lie ahead.