For a variety of reasons, Russia has welcomed the Chinese mediated agreement announced March 11, 2023, between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The agreement provides for a resumption of diplomatic relations between the two states and the reopening of embassies and missions within two months from the signing of the agreement. The document also noted that Tehran and Riyadh reaffirm mutual respect for each other's sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as commitment to non-interference in each other's internal affairs.
Diplomatically, Russia has cultivated strong relationships with both countries. The military dimension is predominant in Moscow's relationship with Tehran. Russia will provide Sukhoi F-35 fighter jets to Iran while Iran has supplied drones and munitions to Russia that have aided it in its war with Ukraine. The economic dimension is dominant in Russia's relationship with Riyadh, specifically in terms of shaping the global oil market. The Russian war effort is largely financed by energy sales and therefore Russia-Saudi cooperation on setting oil prices is of critical importance. Had the Saudis acceded to President Biden's request to increase oil production, this would have adversely impacted oil prices, and affected Russia's ability to fund its war. As long as relations between the Saudis and the Iranians remain on even keel, Russia can maintain a profitable relationship with both, whereas tensions between the two increase the prospects that the Saudis will seek the protection of the Americans.
The second source of satisfaction was that the Chinese had pulled off a diplomatic success in a region where the American had previously dominated diplomatic efforts. This represented the weakening of the American global position and the corresponding ascent of China. Since America is the lynchpin of the coalition supporting Ukraine and imposing sanctions on the Russian economy, any defeat for America is considered a heartening development for Russia. The prospects that Saudi Arabia could join the BRICS and that the dollar could be dethroned by the yuan were likewise developments that cheered Russia.
The choice of China instead of the U.S. as an intermediary represented a validation of Russia's position on international affairs. Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had abandoned the confrontational style and divide and rule tactics of the Americans and had preferred to pursue their own interests. China, as opposed to the United States, did not attempt to impose its values on the parties but respected their regimes, a position that Russia concurred with.
The only sour note was the fear that Russia would not be able to influence China's decisions in the region.
MEMRI's survey of Russian reactions to the Saudi-Iranian agreement follows below:
Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, right, shakes hands with Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Muhammad al-Aiban, left, Wang Yi, China's most senior diplomat, stands in the middle (Source: Fullrio.com)
Artem Adrianov: Catalysts For The Agreement
Artem Adrianov, an Arab affairs expert who works at the Russian Foreign Ministry's Moscow State Institute of International Relations, effectively covers all the major issues in an article, titled "Middle East Storm," published in Izvestiya online portal Iz.ru. Adrianov argues that there were two critical catalysts to the agreement. The first was the Saudi interest in getting out of the Yemen conflict that required patching up relations with Iran. The second catalyst was China's decision to expand its Middle Eastern role from an exclusively economic one.
"Over time, Saudi Arabia realized the futility of participating in the Yemeni conflict and began to look for ways out of it. Negotiations on the normalization of relations between the two countries began in October 2021, but they advanced with long interruptions and did not lead to the results that both sides had hoped for.
"A definite breakthrough was the conclusion of a truce in Yemen on April 3, 2022. At the same time, the last, fifth round of Saudi-Iranian negotiations took place in Baghdad. After that, the parties agreed to study the issue of reopening embassies, and Saudi Arabia agreed to accept 40,000 Iranian pilgrims during the annual hajj."
Progress was interrupted by the outbreak of anti-regime demonstrations in Iran that fueled hope for the fall of the Iranian regime. However, when the demonstrations subsided, negotiations were resumed and culminated in success.
The second factor was China's decision to expand its presence in the region from a purely economic one to a more influential diplomatic role, where it effectively walked in through an open door:
"Many experts wondered why the PRC does not seek to convert its economic influence in the region into political [influence]. In some Middle Eastern countries, it was expected that Beijing would begin to play a more active role in establishing peace. Arab countries, tired of American experiments, sought to develop relations with China and Russia in the hope of containing U.S. influence and diversifying their foreign policy."
China, like Russia, had an interest in stabilizing the region and preventing conflict, given the importance of energy exports from both Saudi Arabia and Iran to China. "Against the backdrop of U.S. attempts to create an anti-Iranian coalition based on the Arab countries and Israel, China decided to use its economic presence. The prospects for a Saudi-Iranian reconciliation significantly reduce the risks of a military escalation in the Middle East, and thus the risks for the Chinese economy. One of the consequences of this will be a detente in other Middle Eastern countries."
Adrianov expected that in addition to reducing the prospects for direct hostilities between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the agreement would have a positive spillover effect in those countries where Saudi-Iranian proxy conflicts were ongoing, notably Yemen and Lebanon.
Adrianov views the agreement as auguring China's supplanting the U.S. in the region. "The global consequences of the Saudi-Iranian reconciliation are also important. In becoming a mediator facilitating its [the agreement's] conclusion, the PRC clearly announced its intention to eject the U.S. from the Middle East. According to many experts, Saudi Arabia, which remains one of the main pillars of the American presence, literally 'showed the middle finger to the Biden administration.' In an effort to diversify its foreign policy, Riyadh is increasingly drifting towards China and Russia..."
Marianna Belenkaya: The Agreement Can Reformat The Region
The foreign affairs correspondent Marianna Belenkaya of the Russian daily Kommersant surveyed the agreement and reached conclusions similar to Adrianov's. Russia was pleased with the agreement as "Russia has always advocated dialogue between these regional players."
Another hopeful prospect for Moscow was that in addition to stabilizing Yemen and Lebanon the agreement would have a salutary effect on Syria where Russia was heavily invested: "One of the interesting questions is whether one should now expect a resumption of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Damascus.
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"At the end of February, there were reports in the media that Saudi Arabia had prepared a list of demands to Syria, which (provided they are implemented) could revive dialogue with the Syrian leadership. Among other things, they [the demands] covered a withdrawal from Syria of Shiite militias loyal to Iran. This is unlikely to happen in the near future, nor will the rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran go away, but there is still a chance for more intensive Saudi-Syrian dialogue."
Belenkaya also believed that the agreement represented a blow to the U.S. "The very fact that relations have been restored, as well as the fact that it [the agreement] was announced in Beijing, are all worth noting here. Considering the U.S. relations with China, this cannot but affect Washington."
China's Refusal To Isolate Iran Paid Dividends
Yana Lexyutina, a Sinologist and professor at St. Petersburg State University believed that China won big by refusing to isolate Iran. "China is one of the few states in the world that maintains close contacts with Iran and, therefore, has the ability to play an intermediary role in relations between Iran and other countries," she argued.
According to Lexyutina, maintaining relations with countries isolated by the West (or "rogue states" in Washington's parlance) has been one of the features of Beijing's diplomacy over the past 30 years and it has become a valuable foreign policy resource. "In this regard, China's role in this situation is rather curious. Beijing appears to have learned how to use this resource," the expert stated.
Yana Lexyutina (Source: Rosbalt.ru)
Adlan Margoyev, a researcher at the Center for Middle East and African Studies at Moscow State University gave credit to China for helping resolve one of the region's thorniest problems, despite the fact that it was previously unaccustomed to the role of mediator. "It is symptomatic for global politics that China, which previously has been distancing itself from such political initiatives, was able to achieve a significant result so quickly, despite the fact that the basis for it was laid by [the mediation efforts of] Iraq and Oman," argued Margoyev.
Vasily Ostanin-Golovnya, an Orientalist and Researcher at the Middle and Post-Soviet East department at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute for Scientific Information in the Social Sciences viewed the move as a Saudi act of self-preservation. The Saudis wanted no part of a brewing nuclear conflict between Israel and Iran.
"It's not without reason that Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Galant stated yesterday that Tehran's actions and the nuclear threat from Iran require the Israeli leadership to be ready for any course of action. That's a direct quote, 'To be prepared for any course of action.'
"That is why Saudi Arabia pursued the course towards normalization, because in case of a direct clash between Israel and Iran, or if Iran experiences turmoil (let's recall Iran's internal destabilization during the protests), or if it engages in a full-scale military clash with Israel, the Persian Gulf zone will be the first to be paralyzed. The latter represents a death sentence not only for Iran, but also for the Arab monarchies that are most dependent on oil exports from this sub-region. So, perhaps, Saudi Arabia is now trying to constitute that final deterrent in the face of the most negative scenarios in the Middle East in general and in the Gulf sub-region in particular."
Pravda journalist Lyubov Stepushova gloated over the agreement because she believed it demonstrated the effectiveness of the Chinese, as opposed to the American, diplomatic style.
"The secret behind the growth of China's influence is simple – it has money, buys a lot, invests without violating the morally permissible boundaries i.e., it does not impose its values."
China has sought to stabilize the region as opposed to U.S. divide and rule tactics: "Since it was the United States that for many years created the ground for conflicts and tensions in the region, theorizing the division of Muslims into Shiites and Sunnis – they suppressed the 'Shiite crescent' and supported the 'Sunni axis'. There was even talk of creating an 'Arab NATO' that would guarantee complete U.S. dominance over the region's resources.
"Recently, Tel Aviv, at the suggestion of Washington, has been working to establish diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, which would put the region on a military path, given Israel's hatred of Iran."
Following the agreement, Stepushova argued Iran could no longer be considered an "axis of evil" or "rogue" state, thus removing the justification for unilateral U.S. sanctions. Israel, given the overwhelming support for the agreement, now faced a global Muslim union and confronted huge and perhaps even existential problems.
Lyubov Stepushova (Source: Nv.am)
Stepushova believes that the agreement is a potential economic game changer as well. "The new reality in the Middle East could be the cornerstone for the creation of the petro-yuan, that is, the sale of oil for Chinese yuan. Obviously, this détente also opens the way for Saudi Arabia and Iran to join the BRICS, which is what they aspire to. In BRICS, Russia, and two oil giants plus China, may well create a new oil currency."
The agreement sounded the death knell for the U.S. dominance and perhaps even its presence in the region: "There were times when the United States could not be ignored in the Middle East, that era is over. Then, we will see the withdrawal of U.S. military bases from the Gulf countries, which will mean the end of the policy of 'imposing positions.'"
Stepushova's article also explored what the Chinese diplomatic triumph meant for Russia. She cited Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who added Russia to the list of countries that had contributed to the process of political settlement between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Bogdanov stated that this process is in line with Russian initiatives aimed at creating a security system in the Persian Gulf region. If the efforts culminated in success, this would be of exceptional importance on the global economic level.
Sinologist Nikolai Vavilov expressed concern that Russia lacked the capabilities for influencing Beijing's global initiatives.
"The real Chinese threat [to Russia] is not in the Far East, but [for Russia] to remain out of work or in tertiary roles under Chinese global leadership. Moscow needs to set itself the task of increasing its influence on the Chinese concept of global governance."
The Parties Abandoned The Confrontation Paradigm.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta also viewed the agreement as a rejection of the U.S. policy of antagonistic military blocs and the gravitation of the region towards China.
"Particular attention should be paid to China's mediating role, which not only brought the conflicting parties together, but also provided them with a platform for signing agreements. This occurred despite the fact that the United States systematically warns its regional allies, including Riyadh, against establishing excessively deep ties with Beijing, leading to covert [Chinese] expansion."
A separate editorial from March 13 stated: "The confrontation, unfolding over the years, evolved into a phenomenon that determined the strategies of other players. The U.S. tried to present confrontational approaches and the need to actively contain Iranian influence as something self-evident. Even the coming to power of the administration of Joseph Biden, a consistent backer of restoring the 'nuclear deal' with Tehran, did not qualitatively improve the situation. American officials never tired of issuing public warnings that they had all options on the table regarding the 'Iranian threat.' Tensions have escalated in recent weeks as senior Pentagon officials have stepped up their travels to the Middle East at an unprecedented rate, to places where American contingents are in close contact with Tehran-backed Shi'ite groups. It could not be called anything other than a demonstrative evaluation of the military scenario.
"However, the sudden announcement of a peace agreement between Riyadh and Tehran demonstrated that the confrontational agenda does not, apparently, meet all the needs in the region and that not everything fits into the traditional bloc logic. Separately, attention is drawn to the fact that the conflicting states decided to turn to the mediation services of the PRC. This has challenged Washington's regional role and its overt attempts to convince its allies of the downsides of deepening ties with Beijing.
"The new security formula in the region is characterized, on the one hand, by a natural narrowing of the confrontational agenda between the main antagonists, and, on the other hand, by the growing demand of local actors for alternative to the American mediation and regulatory assistance. The changing intra-regional system also raises the question of what place Russian diplomacy occupies within it and what advantages it can perceive for itself in the new situation.