A thaw in the Gulf

Australia this week may be talking about war, but in the Middle East the talk is somewhat unexpectedly of peace. Interestingly enough, China is a big part of the story there as well, having brokered a deal last week for the resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Back in 2017 I wrote a piece on the region that Crikey gave a bland title to, but which I had headed “Sarajevo on the Gulf”. The immediate occasion was the Saudi ultimatum to Qatar, and my theme was the underlying dispute between Iran and Saudi Arabia with the interlocking system of alliances around them. It called to mind, I suggested, the conflict of alliances that had led 103 years earlier to the catastrophe of the First World War.

The Saudis patched up their quarrel with Qatar two years ago, perhaps in anticipation of receiving less devoted support from Joe Biden than they had from Donald Trump. But in fact American policy in the region underwent little change. Biden continued his predecessor’s enthusiastic support for both Israel and Saudi Arabia (including efforts to bring them closer together), as well as his demonisation of Iran – made easier by the Iranian regime’s appalling conduct in recent months.

So with no hope of progress towards détente from American efforts, the Chinese government decided to have a go instead. It seems to have picked its moment well; the Yemeni civil war, which was the biggest source of conflict, has gone off the boil, while at the same time Israel has made itself a less attractive peace partner. Iran and Saudi Arabia could both feel they had something to gain from normalisation, and little to lose from giving the US a symbolic poke in the eye.

Juan Cole pinpoints the American mistake:

[B]y tying itself so closely to Israeli priorities, the Biden administration made a significant error in not reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran would have been less likely to go into the Russian orbit if it had the prospect of trading with Western Europe, and it could have used Washington as the channel to restore relations with Riyadh.

A friend on Facebook gives a more concise if tongue-in-cheek explanation: “It seems the Iranians have finally become oppressive enough to have the Chinese and Saudis cut deals with them”.

Anything that boosts the prestige of Xi Jinping’s tyrannical government is certainly a cause for concern. But in comparison to the risks posed by rivalry in the Persian Gulf, that seems a relatively minor matter. On the plus side, it may help to clue in some American policymakers to two important facts: that the Saudi government is at best an unreliable ally, and that a strategy based on a regional conspiracy to shaft the Palestinians is probably not sustainable.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are not suddenly going to become firm friends; their rivalry is much too deep-seated for that. Nor is either going to sign up to be a Chinese dependency. But if they can get into the habit of peaceful coexistence, that’s one less major headache for the world to worry about.


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