Saudi-Iran Deal: It’s A New Beginning

Saudi-Iran Deal: It’s A New Beginning
The Saudi-Iran agreement, signed on March 10, has a potential to alter the Middle Eastern geopolitics. It may bring the two states in sync with the emerging complex multi-polar order and create no space for non-alignment.

The deal, between the two rival states of Iran and Saudi Arabia, through the Chinese mediation, is more likely to defuse than end intra-state conflicts between different groups supported by Iran or Saudi Arabia. The situation in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is expected to be positively influenced by the deal. The US air force bombed Iran backed positions on March 24 and the Iran backed forces firing drones at US bases there, if repeated may endanger the whole process. It may not end competitive relations between Saudi Arabia and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and Iran, but start a process of normalisation and economic interaction in the coming days. At best, the two states will use their influence over their supported groups to stop violence and encourage dialogue.

Due to the nature of the conflict (mainly internal but exacerbated by external support), peace will not result immediately. Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia will completely disconnect with their supported group – for, one agreement is not enough to remove the mistrust and acrimony of decades.

A vital regional as well as global implication of the deal will be reduction in religious extremism and terrorism, which was fuelled by the Saudi and Iranian support for Shia and Sunni sects against each other for geopolitical rivalry.

The deal also enables the arrival of China on the international political scene. Prior to the agreement, China preferred to stay away from conflicts and focused on economic interactions in the Middle East. Those economic interests were mostly driven by China’s need for Saudi and Iranian energy. The space for Chinese assertiveness was provided by the US that no more prioritized the Middle East. This does not mean that Saudis have downgraded their relations with the US and other western states but it has improved their relations with China and Russia by extension. Saudis have thus diversified their policy options. This also means Saudis and other GCC countries will continue their economic relations with the US and will continue to procure American weapons but will no more be exclusively dependent on the US.

China has gained immensely by brokering the deal. It has created an image of bringer of peace and security through trade than weapons and violence. The US had tried to create a GCC plus Israel alliance against Iran. This deal of March 10, if it works, will puncture that option. Still the new developments in the region must not be seen as an anti-Israel alliance.

One direct impact will be de-escalation of the Sunni-Shia conflict in Pakistan. This will also leave a positive influence on Sunni extremism that has taken the shape of a number of terrorist organisations in Pakistan. Michael Kugelman thinks India and Pakistan have a strong interest in seeing the accord succeed. “Better Iran-Saudi relations would give both South Asian countries more diplomatic space to strengthen their own connections — and especially their commercial ties — with Tehran and Riyadh.” However, he states, because of their desire not to upset Washington by moving too close to Iran, Islamabad and New Delhi will take a careful approach no matter the deal’s outcome.

A pertinent question here is how India and Pakistan will manage the space provided by the Saudi-Iran agreement? To take advantage of this space, the political and economic capabilities of the two states are important factors. India may face some challenge in taking advantage of the situation but may make gains. Pakistan’s economic situation is on the verge of bankruptcy and Saudi Arabia, China and IMF are not ready to bail it out. The country is standing on a weak ground because of re-emerging terrorism and polarised politics.

The US has welcomed the deal. It may see some benefit in the shape of decreasing the burden of security in the region. Though the US has lost interest in the region, it should not mean any interest. Pakistan is less significant to the US foreign policy now than ever before, as it looks more towards India.

Due to increasing Chinese assertiveness in the Middle East as evidenced by the deal, Pakistan’s importance in the region may increase. Again, a word of caution, the increased significance may influence the US-India relations. The US may exert more pressure on Pakistan. In response, Pakistan may not be able to benefit from the deal due to its political and economic situation.

China is worried about its huge investments in Pakistan. It is not appreciative of Pakistan’s approach towards China-Pakistan Economic Corridor during the Imran Khan and General Qamar Javed Bajwa era. In the middle of new developments, China will demand guaranteed support from Pakistan that it may not be able to provide.

Further, the less threatened Saudi Arabia feels, the less it will need Pakistan’s cooperation in military support. It may also lose interest in extending economic support to Pakistan.

The situation will depend on the success of the Saudi-Iran deal. The diplomatic relations will fully be resumed by May 10, two months after the deal. During that time, both Iran and Saudi Arabia will take certain steps, such as backing away from their supported groups in different countries of the region. How that goes has yet to be seen.

The developing opportunities in the region must not carry Pakistan away. It must tread the path forward cautiously. This advice may look self-defeating but Pakistani policy makers must keep in mind that the apparent advantages may become a source of pressure and push it further into a corner – thus face more challenges and decreased maneuverability.

International relations are as complex as human relations. In fact, they have become more complex with time, as the divisive Cold War and weak non-alignment systems are no more and relations between states overlap. They may unite on one issue and remain at odds on another. A perfect example of such complexities is Afghanistan, where the two rival states of US and Iran united to support the same Afghan government.

There is a Pashto saying, ‘Water channels breaks out at the weakest spot in the channel’.

The writer is former chairman, Department of International Relations, University of Peshawar. Twitter @ijazkhan