No reaction from India to Beijing’s role in Saudi-Iran deal is disquieting 

No reaction from India to Beijing’s role in Saudi-Iran deal is disquieting 

As the West Asia deal indicates Beijing’s ambition to play peacemaker, experts call for more hands-on Indian policy in the region

The Saudi-Iran agreement signed in Beijing on Friday, if successful, will have far-reaching impacts worldwide. The result of negotiations that were kept secret till they reached agreement could signal an easing of tensions between Riyadh and Tehran after many years; peace in Yemen, where the two countries have carried out proxy battles; and a boost for China’s efforts to project itself as a peacemaker.

While the agreement has been welcomed by the United Nations, France, Jordan and many West Asian countries, it is also seen as a counter to the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords, and will be greeted with some concern in the U.S., Israel, and the UAE.

Disquieting for Delhi

Though New Delhi has not formally reacted to the announcement so far, the fact that two close partners like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran have reached a deal with Beijing’s influence is disquieting, given India’s current tensions with China, experts say. Previous attempts brokered by Iraq and Oman had not succeeded in any breakthrough.

“While Saudi-Iranian normalisation is good news, China being the midwife is bad news for South Block,” said P.R. Kumaraswamy, Professor of Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “However, it is an opportunity for India to rework its priorities and pay serious attention to regional developments” rather than be “surprised” by the development, he added.

Other analysts have pointed to India’s focus on the I2U2 quadrilateral along with Israel, U.S. and UAE, which may have taken the spotlight away from its ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia. In November, Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammad Bin Salman cancelled a visit to India, which is expected to be rescheduled this year. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian cancelled his participation in this year’s Raisina Dialogue, run by the Ministry of External Affairs and the Observer Research Foundation, reportedly after protesting a promotional video for the event that appeared critical of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

Strained U.S-Saudi ties

While U.S.-Iran tensions are high given the recent breakdown in talks over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, the Beijing agreement also shows up the strain in Washington’s strain ties with Saudi Arabia. Despite U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Riyadh last year, Saudi Arabia refused to heed his request to cap oil prices by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) so as to reduce demand for Russian oil in the wake of the Ukraine conflict.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Riyadh in December was a stark contrast, in terms of more than a dozen agreements on energy and infrastructure that were signed. Iranian President Mr. Raisi visited Beijing in February, and Mr. Xi is expected to travel to Tehran later this year to take forward talks on the Belt and Road Initiative and a 25-year MoU worth an estimated $400 billion for oil and infrastructure projects.

New players

Diplomats, however, point out that Riyadh’s agreement with Tehran doesn’t signify a rejection of the U.S., so much as it shows that new global players are exerting their influence.

“While the balance of power remains with the U.S., given its military presence across the region which has grown, its influence and commitment in the region have definitely reduced, given an absence of strategic vision in conflicts like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, etc. The last decade has shown many Middle Eastern countries losing faith in the U.S., and broadening their options to other players like Russia for energy matters, and China for economic and political matters,” said Talmiz Ahmad, a former Ambassador and author of West Asia at War.

Global peacemaker

India will also watch closely to see whether Beijing takes its new role as peacemaker to other parts of the world, including the Russia-Ukraine conflict, regarding which Chinese Foreign Minister (FM) Qin Gang pitched a peace formula while in Delhi this month for the G-20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.

After the Saudi-Iran talks, China’s mediator and former FM Wang Yi said: “As a good-faith and reliable mediator, China has faithfully fulfilled its duties as the host”. Significantly, Mr. Wang, who is also a Politburo member, added that China would continue to play a “constructive role in handling hotspot issues in the world and demonstrate its responsibility as a major nation”.

Much will depend on how smoothly the Saudi-Iran normalisation process proceeds from here, and to what extent China is able to exert its role in guaranteeing the deal.

Resuming relations

“Saudi-Iranian normalisation is different from their reconciliation,” said Professor Kumaraswamy. “It will enable both countries to exit from their ill-fated military involvement in Yemen, but long-term reconciliation will not be easy as their interests and priorities do not converge,” he added, in a reference to the deep-seated Shi’a-Sunni sectarian divide between the countries.

According to the joint trilateral statement released by the two sides and their Chinese mediator after the talks, held in Beijing from March 6 to 10, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to resume full diplomatic relations and re-open their embassies and missions within two months, seven years after they broke off ties. They also affirmed their “respect for the sovereignty of states and the non-interference in internal affairs of states”.

The agreement tasks Saudi FM Faisal bin Farhan and Iranian FM Amirabdollahian with arranging for the return of their ambassadors and re-opening of missions closed after protestors in Tehran overran the Saudi embassy during demonstrations against the execution of a senior Shi’a cleric in Saudi Arabia in 2016.

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