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••• The International Writers Magazine -

Saudi-Iranian détente: Aiming for a new regional order 
• By Dr Marwan Asmar
New Power re-alignment in Midde-East

detente 2023

Minus Israel, the ongoing political rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran is being hailed as a great success on the regional diplomatic and international levels. The agreement to restore relations between Riyadh and Tehran, severed since 2016, will arguably be seen as the greatest political achievement for the Middle East in 2023. The latest Saudi-Iranian deal, orchestrated and clinched by China, will likely establish Beijing as the new broker for international diplomacy since it proved to be the final arbiter to bring the two sides together and allow them to re-establish relations worsened by Iranians storming the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and its Consulate in Mashhad in response to the execution of a Saudi Shiite cleric.

China's clenching of the final deal is certain to have far-reaching international consequences especially for the United States, long seen as the strongman in the Middle East but no longer, with its power declining especially under president Joe Biden, who long made it clear his administration will take a globalist view to international relations and is now entangled in the Russian-Ukraine war presently entering its second year. The deal that is said to be implemented by May, puts China on a higher pedestal, especially since it long established cordial relations with the two Islamic countries, most recently magnified in President Xi Jinping's visit to Riyadh last December and the sojourn of Iranian president Ebrahim's Raisi to Beijing last February.These visits are sending signals to the world that China is interested in gaining an economic and political foothold in the region outside the Mideast oil factor it already established to fuel its bourgeoning economy.

Its global Belt and Road Silk Initiative established in 2013, now seeks to build relations with more than 150 countries, including the Middle East via joint ventures and large-scale investments. Therefore, the latest Saudi-Iran handshake makes it ideal for Chinese foreign policy despite the fact that the two countries have been quietly talking through teams and meetings held in 2021 and 2022 with mediations via Oman and especially Iraq. So, the groundwork to re-establish relations had already been done with Beijing coming in to put the final icing-on-the- cake so to speak.

Outwardly the Europeans for instance, are subdued, because that would mean less tension in the region and may even be prudent for the so-called Iran nuclear file which presently lies in the doldrums and which the European Union, USA, Russia, and China are seeking to revive but with little success. On the face of it, Washington appears to be welcoming of the new initiative on the Saudi-Iran front, though American analysts are weary that the deal may in the end yield little on substance because of the different outstanding files. These relate to Iran's nuclear proliferation, Tehran's ambitions in the Arab world, its relations with Damascus, its role in Lebanon, support for the Houthis in Yemen and finally its drone supplies to Moscow to aid it in its war effort in Ukraine.

All these issues are worrying Washington, however it seems it is prepared to watch and see what good can come out of the latest deal especially since it may be a factor in stopping the eight-year-old deadly war in Yemen and a further incentive to getting Iran back to the table regarding the nuclear negotiations with the West which started in Vienna in 2021 on a high note but has since foundered.

Israel is not happy with the latest Saudi-Iran détente and sees the establishment of relations between the two capitals as a blow to its strategy which has been aimed to isolate Iran in the Arab world and globally and have, in the last few years, made it its target practice range and assassinations whether in Syria or deep inside Iran. Israel made it clear to its allies in the West and especially to the United States that talking to Iran about nuclear proliferation would be no more than placating its leadership and giving it time to produce the ultimate nightmare: Nuclear bomb. 

But the Biden administration is not altogether listening to Israel's pleas, preferring for the time being, to adopt an ambivalent "wait and see" approach, especially since the Vienna nuclear talks went a long way ahead and that many countries came to be involved in their revival including Qatar before reaching a halt because of the Ukraine war. Israel may also be especially worried about the latest détente with Iran because it was banking on the fact that it had been hoping and working for a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia alongside the Abraham accords it sealed with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan in 2020 onwards. Riyadh however, always stated it wouldn't sign a deal with Israel so long as the Palestinian issue is still outstanding. And now normalization will be least likely to happen because of the new relations and the new regional order that seems to be emerging.

Regardless of why Iran is pleased about establishing relations with the Saudis, with domestic pressures included after the death of Mahsa Amini in a Tehran police station in September 2022, the Arab world is happy with the turn of events. The United Arab Emirates resumed relations with Iran by sending its ambassador to Tehran last September, Kuwait did the same and Bahrain is positive about the new cordial environment. And if anything, Tehran seeks to re-establish relations with Manama but it's early days. As well, Jordan's King Abdullah has expressed his willingness to visit Tehran according to different news sources. Since the announcement to establish a new diplomatic rapport, the atmosphere between the two sides has been upbeat. There have been endless tweets on the social media, and especially from the Iranian side, about the coming new era, the foreign ministers of the two countries are already making moves to meet and the Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi has been invited to visit Riyadh by Saudi Arabia's King Salman.

So, a new era for the Middle East is quickly being reshaped and it seems to be much more different than the one that was uttered by the Americans a few years ago under the now ex-US president Donald Trump who constantly spoke of the 'Deal of the Century' but got nowhere.

© Dr Marwan Asmar April 12th 2023
Dr Marwan Asmar is an analyst based in Amman. He has long worked in journalism writing for different regional newspapers and specializing on Middle East and world affairs. He has a Phd from Leeds University in the UK.

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