March 29, 2023

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Iran-Saudi rapprochement matter of US, Europe concern: Turkish expert

TEHRAN – Dr. Bilgehan Alagoz says Iran and Saudi Arabia have engaged in a win-win diplomacy, noting their rapprochement is a matter of American and European concern.

After three days of intensive negotiations hosted by China, Iran and Saudi Arabia finally clinched a deal on Friday to restore diplomatic relations and re-open embassies, seven years after ties were severed over several issues.

The deal, brokered by China, was announced all of a sudden on Friday. 

Both sides have agreed to resume diplomatic relations between and reopen their embassies and missions within a period not exceeding two months. The agreement also includes their affirmation of respect for the sovereignty of states and the non-interference in internal affairs of states.

According to the agreement, they also agreed that the ministers of foreign affairs of both countries shall meet to implement this, arrange for the return of their ambassadors, and discuss means of enhancing bilateral ties.

To know more about the global and regional impacts of the agreement between two regional rival oil-producing powers brokered by China, the world’s biggest oil-consuming country, we reached out to Dr. Bilgehan Alagoz, Director of Foreign Policy Program Center for Iranian Studies-Ankara (IRAM).

Here is the full text of the interview:

How will the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran as two regional powers and rivals affect the US and European pressures on Iran?

I do not perceive a direct connection between Iran’s relations with Europe and the United States and its relations with Saudi Arabia. The two most significant states in the Persian Gulf are Iran and Saudi Arabia, and their power struggle constitutes an essential element of their bilateral relationship. They have nonetheless engaged in win-win diplomacy. For instance, the two countries engaged in a heated argument over the continental shelf in the 1960s. But in 1968, both countries decided that diplomacy was preferable and reached a deal. The same was true in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, where hostilities between the two countries were very strong. The visit of the Iranian president to Saudi Arabia, though, helped to ease the tension. In this regard, Iran’s diplomatic interactions with Saudi Arabia have far more experience than Iran’s interactions with Europe and the US. Since the pressure from Europe and the USA on Iran is a result of Iran’s nuclear activities, I do not believe that the reconciliation of Iran and Saudi Arabia will directly result in a change in policy for them.

Differences and creating differences among regional countries have always been a tool in the hands of extra-regional powers to drive their own interests and goals in our region. Can this agreement be a hurdle for the regional policy of the US and the Europeans?

The fact that this agreement was reached with China’s involvement is, in my opinion, what makes it so noteworthy for Europe and the USA. We are aware that, particularly, the USA views China as its major rival in world politics and hence puts special emphasis on the “Asia-Pacific” region. The US military’s withdrawal from the Middle East has long been a topic of discussion. Those who hold this opinion assert that the US no longer places a high priority on the Middle East in terms of its interests. But it is clear that China, its most significant challenger, is gaining ground. With this most recent development, China is entering a new phase in which it can actively contribute to the Middle Eastern conflict’s resolution for the first time. The Iran-Saudi rapprochement is currently, in my opinion, of concern to the USA and Europe because it is a definite sign of China’s expanding influence in the region.

Saudi Arabia, as the US’s old key regional ally, is trying to diversify its international allies and partners and is challenging Washington, why? Is it a matter of mistrust?

During the Trump era, relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States deepened considerably. The Biden era, however, caused trouble from the very beginning. Biden’s description of Saudi Arabia as a pariah and his words targeting Mohammed bin Salman caused disappointment on the part of Saudi Arabia. For this reason, Saudi Arabia has a balancing policy against the USA. It is developing relations with Russia and China in this perspective. Saudi Arabia is China’s largest oil supplier. Despite the situation in Ukraine, it maintains a balance in its relations with Russia and forges strong bonds within the OPEC+ system. All of these can be evaluated in light of Saudi Arabia’s balancing efforts against the regional policies of the US.

What are China’s motives for doing its best to settle the gaps between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

Throughout the past 20 years, the rise in China’s energy consumption has been a major driver of all energy trends. By 2050, China will continue to import more oil than any other country in the world, according to the estimate. Saudi Arabia is primarily the highest-ranked trading partner in this transaction (although Russia ranked first last year, it is believed to be a conjunctural development). On the other hand, a 25-year Comprehensive Partnership Agreement between Iran and China marked a new phase in the two nations’ relations, which occurred in March 2021. A significant aspect of the relations between the two nations is also revealed by the fact that Iran serves as China’s local ally in Iraq, a country to which Beijing accords tremendous importance. China was, however, under pressure from each nation to reduce its ties with the other. To limit relations with neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia was not in China’s best interests given the current situation, though. China took the lead in this reconciliation because of this.

What is the message of this agreement sent from Tehran to Washington, from Beijing to Washington, and from Riyadh to Washington?

US policy toward the Middle East is not uniform. The US Congress recently considered and rejected the plan to remove 900 soldiers from Syria. Hence, despite the fact that some Americans do not consider the Middle East to be essential, others are nonetheless conscious of its strategic importance. The Biden administration, however, does not approach the region from the proper viewpoint and is not aware of the unease even of its partners in the region.  The most obvious example of this is that it continues its systematic arming of the PKK-YPG despite all the opposition from NATO ally Turkey. As a result, the Middle Eastern countries are developing according to their own dynamics, and the United States is a player whose influence is declining there. This, in my opinion, is the most overt message coming from the reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia and China’s role in it.

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