Under the aegis of China, Iran and Saudi Arabia have re-established their diplomatic relations. This announcement on March 10, 2023 was accompanied by official photos showing, in Beijing, Wang Yi, member of the Political Bureau and Director of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Chinese Communist Party, with Admiral Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, and Mussad bin Mohammed Al-Aiban, Saudi Minister of State, Advisor on Political Affairs and National Security.
Nothing about this event in March 2023 – right down to the photos showing a willingness to be publicized – can be considered a triviality in international relations, after some seven years of dangerous tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two key players in the Middle East. In a region where everything that happens, as much as anywhere else and probably more than anywhere else, is overdetermined by the logic of power, such a rapprochement will have important political and strategic repercussions. Let us emphasize the dimension of the event itself, which was certainly felt as a diplomatic slap in the face for Tel Aviv and even for Washington, so much so that its significance goes against Israeli and American aims. It is worth examining the potential consequences. Potential consequences … because obviously nothing can be considered as definitive. We are both in a « complicated » Middle East… and in the rapid mutations of an international order where surprises and contradictions mean that nothing is settled in advance. We shall see what happens next.
This Iranian-Saudi rapprochement under the aegis of China (which is thus taking care of two of its hydrocarbon suppliers), is shaking up the political lines of international relations, and is calling into question some situations considered to be established. The first observation is that this agreement, to the great displeasure of Washington, has been signed under the auspices of Beijing. This confirms China’s growing authority and its willingness to assume a real international role, including in delicate diplomatic contexts. The most recent past bears witness to this.
On 30 and 31 March 2022, China hosted a third meeting of foreign ministers from Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries in Tunxi, in the province of Anhui (eastern China) (1). Then, in the presence of the Taliban and the Afghan temporary government, it convened a « Troika + » with Pakistan, Russia and the United States (2), despite the tense situation caused by the war in Ukraine (3).
On 24 February 2023, China presented a document containing a « global security initiative ». It then made public a « position on the political settlement of the Ukrainian crisis ». The first document is a general text containing a global conception of international security issues. This conception places the UN at the center of an approach aimed at promoting multilateralism. It also, and perhaps above all, expresses an affirmed desire to be a power playing a positive role in the international order. The second document outlines in 12 points the principles that should guide a process of political solution to the war in Ukraine. In reality, there is a single comprehensive initiative explicitly aimed at initiating a process of political settlement to end the war. This initiative converges with the idea put forward by the Brazilian President. Lula da Silva, in fact, proposed the constitution of a group of countries that would take on the issue of a political settlement of the conflict in Ukraine. And, precisely, such a group would include China, Indonesia and India, which is chairing the G20 for the year 2023. This would contribute to extracting ourselves from an international system that is too dependent on Western hegemony and centrality.
A game-changing initiative
The Iranian-Saudi agreement, concluded thanks to Chinese negotiation/mediation (4), thus corresponds to a recent and very direct involvement of China in international security and conflict resolution issues. But this initiative changes the situation in concrete terms by raising another strategic question, that of the role of the United States in the Middle East… with the doubts that now weigh on the strength and effectiveness of this role. One may indeed wonder about the future of Washington’s role in this region, where three successive administrations (those of Obama, Trump and Biden) have already shown that an American strategic pivot to Asia means in itself a form of (relative) withdrawal from the Middle East. This cannot be equated with a contraction or weakening of the US neo-imperial role in the world. It is first and foremost a strategic adaptation to a new context, to new priorities that the United States is imposing on itself in the face of China’s rise to power. For some experts, however, Washington’s role as « peacemaker » would be called into question with this new setback resulting from the Iran-Saudi agreement under the aegis of Beijing. China would thus fill a strategic vacuum left by Washington in the Middle East.
In truth, the « peacemaker role » of the United States is a myth. A myth of Western tradition. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the unwavering support, over the decades, for Israel’s illegal policy of military occupation, fierce repression and colonization of Palestinian territory, but also of aggression against its neighbors, are reminders of this. In this context, the so-called Abraham Accords process has only contributed, in the name of peace and a « normalization » of Israel’s relations with the Arab world, to the crushing of the legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people, and of a just and lasting peace perspective.
The Iranian-Saudi agreement, however, introduces another problem with the intrusion of China into a strategic space where the United States has continued to dominate for nearly 70 years. From now on, regional diplomacy will no longer go through Washington alone… Beijing has been able to gain the political trust of Riyadh and Tehran, while these two capitals have a conflicting or difficult relationship with the United States. Beijing is succeeding where Washington is struggling. Is this a reflection and consequence of a weakening – some say a decline – of American power politics? Answering this question is more difficult than it seems (and it is not the subject of this article). In any case, it is an illustration of the decline in credibility or even the rejection of Western policy in the world. This can be seen elsewhere, for example in Africa.
While the United States and Israel are seeking, not without some differences, to coordinate their responses to Iran and the Iranian nuclear issue, including the prospect of imposing additional sanctions against Tehran, Saudi Arabia, reputed to be a traditional ally of Washington, has concluded a rapprochement agreement with Iran. Iran is considered by the United States as a hostile actor engaged in military provocations and malicious operations, and whose policy compromises stability in the Middle East by feeding eminent security risks. This is, in a few words, the picture painted by the official American texts – in particular the National Security Strategy (NSS) and the National Defense Strategy (NDS) – adopted by the Biden Administration in 2022. The orientations of the NSS and the NDS, which are based in particular on cooperation and strategic convergence with Washington’s regional partners (notably the Gulf States), appear, however, to be out of step with this Iranian-Saudi agreement.
An end to the logic of the Abraham Accords
These official texts of the Biden Administration emphasize the need to extend and deepen Israel’s growing ties with its neighbors and with other Arab countries, in a continuation of the logic of what is known as the Abraham Accords. However, one may wonder about the credibility of this logic when Saudi Arabia has just distanced itself from it resolutely by choosing a process that is completely contrary to Israeli and American hopes that Riyadh would join this « normalization » process, which already includes Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco. Rabat has indicated that it wants to host a summit on the Abraham Accords in March 2023. Under such conditions, it is not going well…
It is indeed a hard blow, perhaps decisive, that has just been dealt to the credibility and continuation of this process, pushed yesterday by Donald Trump for the direct political benefit of Israel. As the Israeli daily Haaretz (5) points out, the dream of forming an Arab alliance against Iran has been shattered. Not to mention that Israeli policy towards the Palestinians is so brutal that it has become difficult for Riyadh, and even for other Arab capitals, to assume such an alliance in an uninhibited way.
One can assume that the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement could also facilitate a return to negotiation on the Vienna Agreement concerning the Iranian nuclear issue (6). Such a negotiation should extend or reinstate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), included in this Agreement, signed in 2015 and then endorsed by a Security Council resolution (resolution 2231 of July 20, 2015). This Plan of Action strictly defines in detail the technical, security and political conditions for a settlement of the issue and a lifting of sanctions against Iran. Obviously, when it comes to the nuclear issue, it is particularly difficult to predict the successful completion of commitments made. The proof was given in 2018 by the Trump Administration, which deliberately chose to torpedo the Agreement, even though Iran had complied with it for nearly 3 years. The stakes are particularly high today. It is not only about the (real) danger of nuclear proliferation. It is also a question of the strategic balance of power in the international order, and in a context of war…
Nevertheless, we can consider that the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement offers a sort of protection to Tehran, since it becomes politically difficult for Tel Aviv to envisage military action against a country that is now defined as a partner of Saudi Arabia, a difficult ally, but a precious ally of Washington, and even though Israel continues to maintain relations… with Saudi Arabia. Here again, everything is complicated for Tel Aviv.
It is easy to imagine Israeli rage at this unexpected political change which upsets its plans and ambitions. But can we predict what the new far-right government led by Benjamin Netanyahu might decide? A government criticized for its « fascist values », according to the formula of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak (7)? This government does indeed include ministers who are clearly racist and supremacist. But in this context, would Netanyahu dare to decide to use force, when a diplomatic opening may be on the horizon? The answer to this question will also depend on the support that the signatories of the JCPOA, in particular, will decide to give to a revival of the negotiation process. France and the EU are therefore directly concerned and challenged.
France and the Europeans face their responsibility
Finally, we can think that this Iranian-Saudi agreement can facilitate the lowering of tensions, dialogue and more cooperative approaches concerning, for example, the war in Yemen or the existential crisis situation in Lebanon. Real emergencies. But let us stress once again that nothing can be taken for granted or easily achieved. There would be some illusion in imagining the aftermath as an accumulation of possible « happy endings ». The fact remains that this agreement must be taken seriously for what it helps to reveal and stimulate. For the Biden Administration, it is a disappointment and a serious warning. For Israel, it is a clear failure. For the Europeans, it is an opportunity. The EU and its member states, indeed, could play a positive role in this significant shift in the balance of power in the international order. So, will there be someone, in France, Germany or elsewhere, to seize this new political moment? To try to produce solutions, or at least efforts to show what can be achieved if we give priority to diplomacy and abandon the priority of force. Or will we continue to feed confrontation and escalation?
Emmanuel Macron recently said: « I do not want the Chinese and the Turks alone to negotiate the day after » (8). All the more reason to get involved now, to take initiatives and thus widen the circle of actors acting in a convergent manner for a political outcome to the war.
The Chinese initiative forces us to rethink the issues. It may allow us to move forward. But the question is not only to know which (other) power is capable of defining itself as a major player in the Middle East and on the international scene. Some people, however, hope for the advent of a « post-American era ». If this were to happen, we would have to measure its limits for international relations. It is not enough to change leadership or preponderance. A much higher standard must be met. First, it is necessary to obtain solid and broad multilateral commitments, which are likely to be in keeping with the spirit and imperatives of collective responsibility and the political settlement of conflicts.
A different political page can be turned. Concretely. Without naivety. It would be dismaying to see the Euro-Atlantic political world reject the Chinese offer, on the pretext that it is not credible, when this offer is in fact the very discourse of the Western powers on the need for a « rules-based » international order. Those who think that the language of power is cynical by nature are right. But those who refuse to seize the opportunities to get out of it are fundamentally wrong.
1) With the participation of Iran, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan.
2) Indonesia and Qatar have been invited.
3) See » Poutine, l’OTAN et la guerre « , J.Fath, éditions du Croquant, pages 46 and 47.
4) Xi Jinping’s visit to Riyadh in December 2022, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raissi’s visit to Beijing in February 2023.
5) « Saudi-Iran – Rapprochement : In China’s Middle East, Israel Has Little Influence « , Haaretz, 10 mars 2023. https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/2023-03-10/ty-article/.premium/saudi-iran-rapprochement-in-chinas-middle-east-israel-has-little-influence/00000186-cc34-d739-a9cf-dc7ecd530000
6) This Agreement was negotiated and finalized by the 5 permanent members of the Security Council, Germany, the European Union (which coordinated the negotiations), and Iran.
7) « Ehud Barak: The people must react against this government with « fascist values, » Times of Israel, January 1, 2023. https://fr.timesofisrael.com/ehud-barak-le-peuple-doit-reagir-contre-ce-gouvernement-aux-valeurs-fascistes/
8) « Emmanuel Macron on the war in Ukraine: I don’t want it to be the Chinese and the Turks alone who negotiate the day after, » Le Monde, Philippe Ricard, December 21, 2022. https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2022/12/21/emmanuel-macron-sur-la-guerre-en-ukraine-je-n-ai-pas-envie-que-ce-soient-les-chinois-et-les-turcs-seuls-qui-negocient-le-jour-d-apres_6155337_3210.html