The Saudi Arabia-Iran diplomatic ties need to be viewed with cautious optimism

Declarations of peace may or may not be premature, but the US appears no longer to be ‘the indispensable nation’

Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, right, shakes hands with Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban, as Wang Yi, China's most senior diplomat, looks on, in Beijing, on March 11. Reuters
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Pundits, analysts and politicians have had their say on the announcement in Beijing that after four days of negotiations and years of talks, an agreement was reached between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic ties. While reactions have ranged from euphoria to cynicism to outright hostility, reality dictates that cautious optimism is the better course.

It is no doubt significant that China was the address that brought the parties together. This was a role that the US, for domestic political reasons, could not and would not play. As a result, the US left a diplomatic vacuum that opened the door for Beijing.

The stage for the current state of affairs was set with US miscues in the region, beginning with the Bush administration’s disastrous war in Iraq and the Obama administration’s shortsighted approach to the Iran nuclear deal.

The Iraq war devastated the country and its peoples, and depleted US standing and resources, leaving it “damaged goods", even with many of America's regional allies. It also gave Iran a foothold in Iraq. One of the key recommendations of the Iraq Study Group called for the convening of an all-party meeting (including Iran) to bring some stability to Iraq and the region. The Bush crowd rejected this recommendation. When the Obama administration left Iraq in the hands of a deeply sectarian government, the die was cast, leading to renewed civil conflict and a stronger Iranian role in the country and across the region.

When the Obama administration was involved in talks with Iran on the nuclear issue, I said to them: “Why are we expending all of our political resources and leverage to stop Iran from developing a bomb they don’t have and could never use, when we ought to be addressing Iran’s regional meddling which is the real threat they pose?” I proposed a regional security framework such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which helped stabilise Europe for a generation. This too was rejected.

By failing to address regional concerns, the nuclear deal left Iran more emboldened and US Arab allies more insecure and questioning American intentions. Backhanded efforts to reassure them led the Obama administration to commit to support the effort to defeat the Houthi rebellion against the legitimate government in Yemen, which only served to increase Iranian involvement in that conflict. Then came the Trump administration’s radical break from the Iran deal with no alternative and then their failure to provide support for Saudi Arabia when they were subjected to a missile attack by the Iran-backed Houthis. All of this left US Gulf allies unsure about American policies and commitments.

American hubris, erratic behaviour, and lack of concern for allies’ concerns led one Arab intellectual to describe the past two decades of US policy as “a dizzying roller coaster ride and we want to get off”.

No longer confident of US support, some Arab states drew closer to China and Russia and even began to inch their way towards trying to normalise relations with Iran. The UAE restored diplomatic ties and Saudi Arabia began exploratory meetings in Baghdad with Iranian counterparts.

It fell to China, which has been expanding economic ties with both Iran and Arab Gulf countries, to close the deal by playing the needed diplomatic role that could facilitate an agreement. The Saudi Arabia-Iran pact not only envisions restored diplomatic ties, non-intervention, and respect for sovereignty, but also sets the stage for a regional economic summit later this year.

If the Saudi Arabia-Iran pact can be built upon, it could represent a major transformation of the region

It is also worth noting that recent polling across the Middle East demonstrates China’s enhanced role at the expense of the US. While still seen as more powerful and needed as an ally, the US is increasingly viewed as erratic and unreliable. And strong majorities in most Arab countries see China as the emergent power that will eclipse the US in the next 20 years.

America has sold arms to Arab states, invested heavily in the region, and, at times, provided security when needed, but it has also been demeaning and demanding and too often has turned its back on Arab regional partners and failed to address their concerns. As Saudi leaders have told US presidents going back to George W Bush, “If you insist on acting according to your interests, even when they conflict with ours, then we will act according to our interests, even when they conflict with yours.” As the Saudi Arabia-Iran agreement demonstrates, as a result of American hubris Washington may no longer be, as Madeleine Albright often declared, “the indispensable nation”.

That said, declarations that “peace is at hand” could be premature. Iran and Saudi Arabia will establish relations and China will parlay its economic ties with both countries and others in the region to broaden the framework, but the big question that remains is whether Iran will and can reduce regional tensions by reining in its regional allies.

Iran has invested heavily in supporting proxy militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. If it is willing to do so, Iran may be able to exercise some restraint and control. But even if they cut back on financial and military support, it is not clear whether the destabilising groups they have backed in these countries will submit to their diktats. Deep-seated sectarian and structural conflicts remain in each of these countries – which Iran didn’t create, but instead exploited and helped to exacerbate.

One measure of how serious Iran is about peaceful co-existence and focusing on trade, development and promoting prosperity for its own people and the region, is its willingness to participate in regional efforts to stabilise the countries in conflict. It could do this by pulling the plug on support for its militias and working with Saudi Arabia and other parties to achieve political solutions in each.

If the Saudi Arabia-Iran pact can be built upon, it could represent a major transformation of the region. This outcome is far from assured and will require heavy lifting and good faith of all parties, especially Iran.

If the US were smart, it would recognise that there is a new game afoot. It has a choice. It can either remain on the sidelines or seize this opportunity and offer to support and participate in expanding a regional peacemaking effort. I hope the US chooses the latter option, but fear it will be the former.

Published: March 21, 2023, 7:00 AM