Saturday, 1 April, 2023

Will Saudi-Iran Deal Bring Peace in Middle East?

A.K.M. Atiqur Rahman

Will Saudi-Iran Deal Bring Peace in Middle East?
A.K.M. Atiqur Rahman

Popular News

On 10 March, after four days of extensive negotiations between the high-level representatives of Iran and Saudi Arabia held in Beijing mediated by China, the two countries, which had severed diplomatic relation seven years back, signed an agreement to restore that relation. It is expected that this will play a very positive role in coming out of the political turmoil existing in the Middle East. Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Saudi Arabia last year and Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi's visit to Beijing in February this year have finally brought the reconciliation talks to fruition. It is to be noted that Iraq and Oman were the first in taking initiatives to restore relations between the two countries. In April 2021, the representatives of Iran and Saudi Arabia held the first negotiation meeting, mediated by Iraq. After that, the two countries met four times at the initiative of either Oman or Iraq. During the fifth meeting, a proposal came from Iranian side to open embassies of the two countries in each other’s capital.

According to this agreement, both countries will open their embassies within two months and take steps to implement the security and economic cooperation agreements signed between the two countries 20 years ago. The restoration of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is seen by all as a major success of Chinese diplomacy. At the same time, the two countries that initiated the reconciliation process, namely Iraq and Oman, should have the opportunity to be the parties of this success. Actually, all three countries deserve deep appreciation for their respective roles. Many countries of the world, including Bangladesh, have welcomed this agreement and expressed their hope that this agreement would ease the tension between the conflicting states of the Middle East and help establishing peace in the region.

We understand that the root of the age-long rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is nothing more than the religious strife between the Sunni and Shia sects who believe in the same religion, Islam. In fact, the sectarian rivalry has translated into a tussle for regional hegemony. Deviating from the core teachings of the religion of tolerance and respect for mutual faith, the two groups have plunged not only the two countries but the people of the world, especially Muslims, into turmoil. As religious emotions and sentiments are very sensitive issues, the two countries had capitalised on it and had spread the flames of proxy conflicts in neighbouring countries, such as Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Iran and Saudi Arabia supported and cooperated with each other’s rival groups in continuing conflicts in those countries. Finally, in 2016, Iranian demonstrators attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran following the simultaneous execution of 81 Shia Muslims, including a Shia leader, by the Saudi government. After that incident, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran. Therefore, considering the overall situation, the world people hope that the current agreement will not only play a substantive role in reducing the existing tensions, protecting human rights and ensuring security in these two countries, but also in the region.

However, one should not think that this agreement will bring an overnight solution to all the problems existing between the two countries or in the region. The most sensitive issue is the Shia-Sunni religious divide and conflict of faith. Leaders of both countries should keep this in mind. Plans should be taken to carry forward the relationship with patience by prioritizing the issues of mutual interests. In order to achieve the results of this agreement, the mutual trust and confidence between the two countries should be strengthened and based on that, long-term joint efforts of the two countries should be continued. In order to strengthen the relationship between the two countries, the people of both the countries should keep tolerance and come forward with a liberal mindset. A sense of mutual respect should be inculcated among people of all religions and castes, and if any problem arises, it should be resolved through discussions rather than conflict. In this case, one should not interfere in the internal affairs of the other, and there should be a commitment to live in peaceful coexistence. Not war, the goal should be peace, development of the two countries and peoples.

Everyone knows that the road will not be smooth if you walk on the path already full of dirt. In this case, the challenges that both the countries may face are as follows- (1) The long-standing conflict between the Shia and the Sunni sects, despite being followers of the same religion, should be looked at so that it does not come to a head in any way. Religious leaders could be inspired to come forward to help.          As the religious issue is very sensitive, it has been used for a long time as the most terrible weapon not only to disturb the peace of the two countries, but the entire region. (2) In the field of regional geopolitics, if the two countries do not work towards the same goal and start politics of division, then it will bring them back to the previous situation. For the sake of peace, Saudi Arabia and Iran should come out of the role they played in the previous years in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria crises. (3) The direction in which Saudi Arabia's relationship with the United States takes a turn is no less important for the two countries to work together for peace in the region. There is no reason for the United States to worry if this agreement helps ease the tension in the Middle East and spread the light of peace. However, no one can guarantee that the United States will not find new tricks or loopholes to maintain its hegemony. In this case, Saudi Arabia must overcome the diplomatic test. (4) Saudi Arabia and Iran are very important to China for energy. Besides, those two countries are good destinations for Chinese products. Besides, China's current role and its possible future geo-political position in the Middle East should also be seriously studied by both countries. In this case, the possibility of creating a new geo-political alignment cannot be completely ruled out. (5) In addition to China, the equation of relations of Iran and Saudi Arabia with Russia and India is also an important factor for the present time global as well as regional politics. (6) Besides the countries of the Middle East, if the relations between the two countries can be taken to a new level with neighbouring Turkey and Egypt, it might play a strong role in the regional political and economic development. (7) The existing relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel does not seem likely to change a lot soon. But Israel may think differently due to Iran's involvement. In this regard, Saudi Arabia will have to be very strategic in handling Israel. (8) It might not be difficult for Saudi Arabia to establish diplomatic relations with Iran, but it will not be so easy to implement the economic activities because there are US sanctions on Iran. How to deal with emerging situations will depend on the foresights and diplomatic expertise of their leaderships.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are two of the largest Muslim countries in the region. These two countries have considerable influence not only in the field of regional politics but also in the economic field. The good relations between these two countries have implications for the Muslim world as well. Muslims around the world would be happy if there is peace in the Middle East. In that context, the current agreement has come to them as a new hope.

It might not be justified to assume that the United States' long-standing influence in the region will disappear immediately. Will the United States accept China as a new player there so easily? Furthermore, as an American replica, Israel is very much active in that area. However, the leader of Israel's opposition has termed the situation as a total and dangerous foreign policy failure of the Israeli government.  Anyway, to understand the future direction of the Iran-Saudi pact, we have to wait to get the answers to the questions— in which direction the Russia-Ukraine war will take the world political system, whether the upcoming visit of the Chinese President to Moscow can bring Russia and Ukraine to one table, will this agreement usher in any major changes in geo-political dynamics in the Middle East, what might be the global geo-political realignment due to those incoming events, etc.


The writer is a former Ambassador and Secretary