It is important to recall the positive climate that surrounded the original talks between the US and Iran in Oman that led to the agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme.
At the time, John Kerry was the US secretary of state, and he was later criticised by some for having signed the “worst possible agreement” with Tehran. His interlocutor was Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, whose wide smile and ringing laugh echoed across the news reports on the nuclear agreement that was signed in 2015.
The then democratic administration in Washington expressed its confidence that Iran would be prevented from building a nuclear weapon and that it would remain committed to allowing inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor its declared nuclear sites and verify that it had not secretly obtained materials that could be used to create a nuclear warhead.
Let’s now fast-forward to those inspection processes in order to assess the Iranian behaviour and negotiating strategy that led the subsequent Republican administration in the US to withdraw from the nuclear agreement in 2018. The Iranian behaviour also led the Europeans to rethink their positions on Iran, even though they had been more understanding and sympathetic towards the country’s demands.
The operative words in this context were Iranian “foot dragging” and its ability to void the agreement of substance, casting the problem back to square one if not before. This is the history we need to bear in mind in evaluating the Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iranian agreement to restore diplomatic relations between the two countries today.
Despite frequent announcements of bilateral meetings between representatives from Iran and Saudi Arabia over the past two years, the announcement of the agreement earlier this month came as a surprise to many. Perhaps the greatest part of the surprise was China’s sudden appearance in a problem of this magnitude and its success in presenting itself as a sponsor and guarantor of normalisation between such major regional powers as Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Beijing may be able to alter the Iranian behaviour that has been closely connected to a series of civil wars, proxy wars, and other types of conflicts that have plagued the Middle East for over a decade, along with sectarian troubles and a political ferment that have affected all the countries in the region. Even so, “cautious optimism” may be our best approach to take on the Beijing-brokered agreement given the many challenges that lie ahead.
The questions China faces far outweigh the answers, and most of the questions are of the strategic sort that have to do with sustainable arrangements built on changing long-established patterns and behaviours. One question is who possesses the vision and the will to push through the needed and effective breakthroughs? Beijing has provided the correct answer here, as it has demonstrated its diplomatic acumen when it stepped in where Iraqi and Omani mediating efforts had left off, built on the progress they had made, and then produced results.
In the process, it launched its new status in a region that has historically been a realm of US influence at a time when the US has been preoccupied by other matters and has ceded previously unavailable space to other powers to assert their influence.
China, of course, is keen to ensure its success in this region, which supplies Beijing with 40 per cent of its oil needs and which sits atop the waterways and innumerable investment prospects of a major juncture in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. For China, sponsoring the Saudi-Iranian agreement was a practical way to reaffirm its recently launched initiatives to promote world peace and stability.
If Beijing succeeds in persuading Iran to respond to the international community’s demands regarding its nuclear programme, and if it can lift Iran out of its international isolation and show the world a new and cooperative Iranian face, then China will reap a double victory while bolstering its international status, which is its main aim today.
But Iran must also contend with some difficult questions in order to identify the behavioural changes that it needs to make and the will it needs to summon in order to shape new realities that are in line with the conclusions China has drawn.
The Iranian state is founded in essence on acquisition and hegemony. A realistic change in strategic outlook is needed in order for it to turn over a new leaf. This change needs to start with a totally new formula for the linkage between Tehran and its militias in other countries in the region in order to create the environment for lasting solutions to hotspots of tension and instability.
This is an area that will be a major testing ground for the Iranian-Saudi agreement. The results will either confirm that Iran is serious about the agreement or they will reveal that Iran has seized upon it as a temporary measure to break its international isolation or deflect some of the stress of its current political and economic crisis.
If the agreement is truly to become a watershed in Middle East diplomacy, there must be a peaceful solution to the Yemeni conflict that has ravaged that country and that Iran has used to inflict harm on its Gulf neighbours. If Iran does not cause the Houthis in Yemen unequivocally to renounce the military option, relinquish their wartime gains, and engage in a participatory political process with other Yemeni stakeholders, Saudi Arabia will not move forward in implementing the Iranian-Saudi agreement and achieving its aims.
Syria presents a similar situation, although other non-Iranian parties are involved there too. It has been obvious to many countries in the region that at various points during the Syria crisis Iran has exerted no small amount of political and moral pressure on the Syrian government to keep it from returning to the Arab fold.
Although diplomatic relations have been restored in some cases, these remain purely formal. Syria’s Arab role and the active partnerships that the Arab countries once had inside Syria have not been revitalised. Iran believes that this is legitimate payment for its efforts in protecting and stabilising the Syrian regime, something it always mentions in its talks with the Russians and the Turks over Syria’s future. Can Tehran now overcome this conviction in the interest of promoting a settlement process that would give the Syrian government the freedom and independence to determine and forge its own future?
The crises in Iraq and Lebanon have their own particular features, but Iran is a key factor in both of them as well. Tehran needs to engage in a process of deep introspection with regard to its presence and methods in these countries. In the process, it will have to come up with clear answers to questions that could cause the Iranian-Saudi agreement to flounder on the shoals of ambiguity and contentious interpretations and the doubts and suspicions these raise.
* The writer is the general director of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies (ECSS).
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly