Editorial Notes: On March 10, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia issued a joint statement announcing the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as the reopening of their respective embassies within two months following a negotiation meeting held in Beijing. This significant development quickly garnered global attention, and its impact on world geopolitics is expected to be substantial.
Prof. Chen Guangmeng, the Executive Dean of the Academy of International and Regional Studies (AIRS) and Director of the Center for Israel Studies (CIS) at Sichuan International Studies University (SISU), authored a paper expressing his perspective on the Saudi-Iran Deal, which China brokered.
On March 10, 2023, Saudi Arabia and Iran released a joint statement in Beijing, mediated by China, announcing the resumption of diplomatic relations and the reopening of their embassies within two months. This is the first time the two countries have reconciled since their break in 2016 caused by the "religious incident." They also announced plans to restart cooperation in trade, investment, technology, and other fields. The news has received a positive response from countries such as Iraq, Oman, the UAE, and the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, who said that Saudi Arabia and Iran's good neighborly friendship is crucial to the stability of the Gulf region. However, while almost all parties have praised the agreement, Israel has yet to make a statement. The former Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, believed that the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran was a victory for Iran and that it posed a serious and dangerous threat to Israel. Why would the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two Islamic countries not bordering Israel, cause such concern for Israel?
Firstly, the reconciliation will negatively affect the relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Netanyahu had worked to expand the Abraham Accords and normalize relations with Saudi Arabia. In September 2020, with the support of the US, Israel signed the Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain, breaking a 30-year diplomatic deadlock with Arab countries. Israel then normalized its relations with Morocco and Sudan. These events changed the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. Since Netanyahu returned to power in 2022, he has been determined to expand the scope of the Abraham Accords, including establishing diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Arab world. The U.S. supported these efforts and was willing to meet Saudi Arabia's demands for civil nuclear energy technology and security to a certain extent. However, with the resumption of Saudi Arabia and Iran's diplomatic relations, this process will be postponed, if not impossible. Saudi Arabia's original intention to establish diplomatic relations with Israel was mainly to confront Iran together. After the resumption of Saudi Arabian-Iranian relations, the urgency for Saudi Arabia to establish diplomatic relations with Israel has decreased. As the flag bearer of the Arab world, Saudi Arabia's foreign policy orientation is very important. Israel's promotion of settlement construction in the West Bank and conflict with Palestinians in Jerusalem have affected Arab-Israeli relations. Saudi officials publicly claimed that establishing a Palestinian state is a prerequisite for establishing diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. With the establishment of the "most right-wing" government in Israel's history at the end of 2022, a new round of large-scale conflict has been ushered in between Palestine and Israel. Against this background, it will be difficult for Israel to further break diplomatic barriers and achieve normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia.
Secondly, the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran will negatively impact the relationship between Israel and Iran. In July 2015, during the presidency of Democrat Barack Obama, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was reached to temporarily stabilize the Iranian nuclear issue through the efforts of various parties. However, Israel was bitter about this because it believed that the U.S. and the West had lifted sanctions against Iran but did not force it to abandon its nuclear program. In May 2018, under the Republican Donald Trump Administration, the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA, which Israel applauded. However, Israel soon realized that the Iranian nuclear issue was no longer under international supervision and did not make it feel safer. After the Democratic Joe Biden Administration took office in 2021, it intended to resume the JCPOA. However, the domestic and international environment had changed, and the Biden diplomatic team shelved the plan after a short attempt. Therefore, the international community now sees that the U.S. and the West continue to maintain sanctions against Iran, and the Iranian nuclear issue is progressing without supervision. Israel has threatened to airstrike Iran's nuclear facilities from time to time. The resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran will undoubtedly reduce external pressure on Iran. In recent years, Iran has faced economic sanctions from the U.S. and the West because of the nuclear issue.
The U.S. and Israel have also been attracting Arab countries to form anti-Iran camps by exploiting Saudi Arabia's bad relations with Iran. This has created mountain-like pressure and a security threat for Iran. Especially after the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, rumors circulated that Saudi Arabia would be the next country to normalize relations with Israel. The resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a major setback for Israel and the U.S.'s long-term policy of isolating Iran and, to some extent, can be viewed as "the victory of Iran." Moreover, the joint statement of China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran did not mention Israel's long-term concern about the Iranian nuclear issue, demonstrating that Saudi Arabia's approach to Iran's relations is significantly different from Israel's.
Furthermore, this reconciliation may help Israel again recognize China's role in Middle East affairs. The resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran occurred in Beijing, which was beyond the expectation of many people who were used to seeing similar settlement agreements signed in the U.S. The U.S. government was historically an "iron-clad" mediator, from the Camp David Accords in 1978 to the Abraham Accords in 2020. However, the geopolitical situation in the Middle East has changed in recent years. The U.S. began to implement strategic contraction in the Middle East and wanted to shift its main energy to the Asia-Pacific region to counter China after the consumption of the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S.'s security guarantee for the Middle East region is unreliable, and China has become increasingly involved in Middle East affairs. As one falls, another rises, and the perceptions of the status of China and the U.S. in the Middle East by Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other countries are constantly changing. The meeting in Beijing to complete the "doorstep" of normalization of Saudi-Arab-Iranian relations is a recognition of China's status by the two countries. In this context, Israel, as one of the essential "players" in the Middle East, should consider how to maintain a new balance in the triangular relationship between Israel, the U.S., and China.
In conclusion, the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, mediated by China, has significantly impacted Israel. On the one hand, it disrupted the process of establishing diplomatic relations between Netanyahu's government and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, it also made it more difficult for Israel to contain Iran. This time, China, rather than the United States, mediated to restore diplomatic relations between the two major Middle East countries. This will inspire Israel to be more cautious in its future dealings with China, particularly on issues related to China, such as the bidding of the Tel Aviv green subway line and arms sales to India. Israel must consider China's response carefully. After all, the Middle East today is vastly different from the Middle East 20 years ago, and the roles of China and the United States in the region have also changed. Israel's diplomacy must understand these changes and adapt accordingly.
Currently, Prof. Chen is the Executive Dean of the Academy of International and Regional Studies (AIRS) and Director of the Center for Israel Studies (CIS) at Sichuan International Studies University (SISU), China. He earned his Ph.D. in International History from the University of Nanjing (China) in 2010 and was a visiting scholar at Bar-Ilan University (Israel) in 2012 and Brandeis University (U.S.) in 2014. Prof. Chen's primary research interests include International Relations History, Think Tanks, and Israel and Middle East Studies.
The views expressed herein belong to Prof. Chen Guangmeng and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Bridging News and iChongqing.
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