There is a lot to unpack regarding the recent China-mediated agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic ties and its likely impact on the future security landscape of the Middle East.
There are three factors that will most likely limit any security gains.
First: The Iranian regime’s radicalism and penchant for expansionism.
Second: China’s unwillingness and inability to play a more significant security role in the region.
Third: Israel’s profound apprehensions about Tehran’s nuclear programme.
This article aims to address these limitations.
Iran is nothing if not pragmatic. But history — since 1979 when the ‘Islamic Republic’ was born — has shown that it is also deeply conservative when it comes to its worldview and consistent with how it has pursued it.
Those in Tehran driving Iranian foreign policy are not the diplomats, some of whom were involved in negotiating the accord with their Saudi counterparts. Rather, it’s the ‘Supreme Leader’ and, increasingly in recent years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
These actors believe that Iran’s destiny is fulfilled only by spreading its ideals across the Arab-Muslim world. Notice that we have yet to hear from IRGC senior personnel on the agreement with Saudi Arabia, which suggests that they’re not bound by its terms.
Iran will likely renege on deal
Had Iran not been diplomatically isolated with its economy in dire straits, it wouldn’t have entertained any rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. Indeed, that’s the pragmatic side of Iranian foreign policy. But the moment it reaps the benefits of this deal, Tehran will reveal its true character again and show little restraint in its regional approach.
Iraq remains in Iran’s sights, and the plan has always been to control Iraqi politics and resources through violence, intimidation, and divide-and-rule tactics.
Beijing deserves credit for portraying itself as a power broker in a region that has traditionally been under US influence. But even the most amateur observer of international relations knows that diplomacy with no teeth can be very short-lived.
The main reason why the United States was able to facilitate historic Arab-Israeli peace agreements, first between Egypt and Israel, and then between Jordan and Israel, was because it provided security guarantees to the negotiating parties.
China has no interest in providing such guarantees because its main sphere of influence is Asia. The Middle East is too far from home, and the risk of overstretch is all too real for the Chinese.
Beijing prefers to continue to free-ride on American security and prioritise its economic interests in the region.