L to R: Saudi National Security Advisor Musaad bin Mohammed Al-Aiban, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi, and Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani, Beijing, China, March 10, 2023
Ali Shamkhani, the Secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, was effusive after signing the agreement with Saudi Arabia for the countries to restore diplomatic relations and re-open embassies after more than six years.
Speaking in Beijing, where the final discussions were brokered by China’s top diplomat Wang Yi on March 10, Shamkhani said:
Clearing up the misunderstandings and looking to the future in Tehran-Riyadh relations will definitely lead to the development of regional stability and security and the increase of cooperation between the countries of the Persian Gulf and the Islamic world to manage the existing challenges.
Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian spoke of “great capacities to both countries, the region, and the Muslim world”. Iranian State media said Israel had been dealt a “fatal blow” to its anti-Tehran regional coalition, as the Supreme Leader’s military advisor proclaimed that a “post-US era in the Persian Gulf region has just started”.
US commentators, watching China as well as the Iran-Saudi relationship, were just as breathless. Peter Baker of The New York Times wrote:
This is among the topsiest and turviest of developments anyone could have imagined, a shift that left heads spinning in capitals around the globe. Alliances and rivalries that have governed diplomacy for generations have, for the moment at least, been upended.
All of which brings to mind the advice of Public Enemy: Don’t Believe The Hype.
Iran’s regime is seeking survival. Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, is seeking leverage. China is building up political capital and positive global PR.
Those short-term needs converged in Beijing. But they are not the basis of a long-term strategic “alliance” in Iran and the Middle East.
A Limited Agreement
To start with the obvious: the agreement merely returns Iran and Saudi Arabia to the position of January 2016, before Riyadh broke relations with Tehran after a crowd attacked and burned the Saudi Embassy.
Nor was this a sudden breakthrough with China as the deus ex machina. The Iranians and Saudis had been in discussions since January 2021, initially in the Iraqi capital Baghdad and then in Oman.
The restoration of diplomatic relations marks the burial of the proximate causes for the 2016 split: the deaths of 464 Iranians among more than 2,000 pilgrims killed in a stampede in Mecca, and the Saudi execution of the Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
But it does not remove the wider issues: concern over Iran’s nuclear programme; Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen, where Tehran supports the Houthi insurgency; and years of being on the opposite side of tensions from Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen.
In their statement last week, the two sides cited the “reactivation” of an April 2001 security cooperation agreement. But while Iran may be holding naval drills with China and Russia this week, it is unlikely that the Iranian and Saudi navies — or their armies or air forces or riot police — will be doing the same in the foreseeable future.
Significantly, the Saudi presentation of the agreement has been far more low-key — Riyadh’s official in Beijing, National Security Adviser Musaid al-Aiban, was not even named in initial reports — than that on Tehran. Riyadh’s focus has been much more on cultivation of the Chinese than of the Iranians.
Al-Aiban said Saudi Arabia “welcomes the initiative of His Excellency President Xi Jinping, based on the Kingdom’s consistent and continuous approach since its establishment in adhering to the principles of good neighborliness”. Riyadh was pursuing “everything that would enhance security and stability in the region and the world” while “adopting the principle of dialogue and diplomacy to resolve differences”.
The Hype of Legitimacy
So what is the pay-off for the Iranian regime? The vestiges of legitimacy.
Since relations were broken in January 2016, Tehran has been buffeted by a series of shocks abroad and at home. The erosion of the 2015 nuclear deal — now dormant as the regime insists on restrictions on inspections — has alienated much of Europe, North America, and Asia and hindered Iran’s global trade and finances. The pursuit of regional influence has been hindered by the weaknesses of allies in countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and by the US assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guards.
The economic situation is precarious amid ongoing sanctions and internal issues of corruption and mismanagement. Inflation is officially more than 40% and unofficially far higher. Restrictions on foreign investment are affecting infrastructure, even as the Revolutionary Guards tighten their grip on key sectors. The currency is at a historic low, even after an emergency intervention by the Central Bank brought some relief this month.
Mass protests were violently suppressed after the disputed 2009 Presidential election, but they have recurred. Now the regime finds itself challenged by six months of nationwide demonstrations for the rights and equality of “Woman. Life. Freedom.”
The restoration of relations with Saudi Arabia — particularly with the public matchmaking of “great power” China — gives the appearance that the regime can still conduct business abroad. Hyping this with the proclamation of grand achievements to come, leaders will hope they can divert Iranians from clear and present problems.
En route to the UAE for more regional maneuvering on Thursday, Shamkhani put out the latest PR: “If all the countries in the region come to believe that they can achieve stability and endurable security only by trying to create a strong region, we can hope for the formation of new developments in bilateral and multilateral relations.”
A Limited Relationship
Mohammad bin Salman has already dealt with his legitimacy problem abroad, successfully putting the October 2018 assassination of dissident Jamal Khashoggi into deep storage, by leveraging Saudi economic and security assets. His approach now is to balance relationships to ensure flexibility — so Israel gets a reminder that Riyadh is not exclusively committed to the Abraham Accords between Tel Aviv and Gulf countries, and the US gets a reminder that China is a welcome partner.
Beijing is already promoting the economic potential of its Belt and Road Initiative and trading on America’s ongoing realignment — and, arguably, indecision — in the Middle East after the disastrous 2003 Iraq War. In its chest-bumping with the US, China is adopt to take a more prominent political position as well.
Fulfilment of these ambitions does not require a strategic partnership or even an extended economic investment with Iran. Saudi Arabia can extend wishes for cordial relations, while continuing to maintain involvements from Lebanon to Yemen that run counter to Iranian interests. China need not take any step to making the illusion of “$400 billion in Iran over 25 years” — the Iranian regime’s presentation of a March 2021 memorandum of strategic cooperation — a reality.
Iran’s leaders probably know this. But for now, they cling to their approach, hoping that enough people at home and abroad Believe The Hype.