Recently, national security officials from Iran and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement in Beijing, China, according to Reuters. The agreement reestablishes diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia after seven years.
This agreement should interest those countries’ neighbors as well as the U.S., E.U. and Russia. It may be a sign of what direction Sunni Islam nations will take and Tehran’s perception about what Iran can get in regard to nuclear weapons and its relationship with Russia.
In the agreement, both countries also pledged to reopen embassies that were closed after protesters in Tehran attacked the Saudi embassy in 2016. That riot occurred after the Saudi government executed a leading Shia scholar and cleric in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was an outspoken critic of the Saudi government, calling for the ousting of the ruling Al-Saud clan. He was also at the center of mass demonstrations against the Saudi regime in Shia communities. Although outspoken, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr’s central role in the Shia community in Saudi Arabia was thought to be enough of a protection against retribution.
But the unrest was seen as so dangerous that government leaders in Saudi Arabia decided to use extreme force and execute many activists like Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, according to The Huffington Post. The BBC noted that Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was executed in 2016. However, his death backfired for the government; it led to mass protests in Iran.
[Related article: Iran Is Determined to Follow Its Own Path Despite Problems]
The Sunni-Shia Divide Has Been a Problem in the Middle East for a Long Time
The Sunni-Shia divide has long been a problem in the Middle East. Most Muslims in the world are Sunnis, but alongside them, there are many Muslims who identify as Shia. According to the Pew Research Center, Shia Muslims make up approximately 10%-13% of the total Muslim population.
This religious divide involves some core doctrinal issues, such as who is the true heir to Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Most Shia Muslims (called Twelver Shia since they believe there were 12 Imams that came after Muhammad) believe that Ali, Muhammad’s paternal cousin and son-in-law, should have been the leader of Islam.
However, Ali’s role as the future leader of Islam was usurped by the caliphs that Sunni Muslims revere as second only to Muhammad. This difference caused a schism that has resulted in bloodshed many times in the past and the marginalization of Shia in the Muslim world. This situation also created a deep resentment of Sunni dominance among Shia Muslims.
The Islamic revolution, however, brought Shia doctrine to the forefront of the Islamic world. Deep-seated rivalries are always involved in relations with Iran, which has been attempting to assert a leading role in the Islamic world.
After 2016, Iran’s language became even more vitriolic, and The Wall Street Journal described the new reality as a cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Iranian regime’s mouthpieces portrayed the Saudis as Wahhabi heretics who are U.S. puppets. In addition, some Saudi media channels broadcast sermons that focused on Shia doctrinal heresy and defined the leaders of the Shia world as heretical.
Both countries waged a proxy war by backing Shia and Sunni forces in civil wars in Yemen and Syria. The violence in both civil wars was not only deadly, but the wars also brought about the biggest refugee crisis since the World War II.
But on the minds of policymakers in both Tehran and Riyadh was one issue: Iran’s nuclear program. An Iranian nuclear bomb will be a Shia-controlled bomb, and Iran has made it clear that it seeks to dominate the Islamic world.
According to Shia theology, there will be a return of Imam Mahdi in the future, who will bring redemption to the world. Islamic dominance is central to this Shia narrative. The combination of religious language and nuclear weapons has made the Saudis worry and highly interested in U.S. attempts to curb Iran’s ability to create nuclear weapons.
China’s Involvement in the Iran and Saudi Arabia Agreement Bears Watching
China’s involvement in the Iran and Saudi Arabia agreement should be carefully monitored by the U.S. Until now, China has not been heavily involved in Middle East politics. The role China played in this agreement means China is changing its foreign policy and sidelining the U.S.
Politico said that the White House was not alarmed by this new role for China, but commented, “That display of nonchalance also suggests that the administration is eager to stave off concerns that China is eroding America’s global influence at a time when the Biden administration seeks solidarity with partners and allies to counter what Secretary of State Antony Blinken calls Beijing’s threat to the ‘rules-based international order’.”
Is this action by China a paradigm shift? It isn’t in my opinion; it is just another chapter in a complex relationship that has been going on for over a millennium.
The deep tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran has roots that go to the beginning of Islamic history and are connected to vision of dominance that are at the core of their religious identity. The reopening of embassies cannot erase that legacy.
But it does mean Saudi Arabia is interested in de-escalating the conflict with Iran to one degree or another. Riyadh is most likely worried about the future of the Iranian nuclear program.
This agreement is also a sign that Iran feels secure in its new relationship with Russia and China. It indicates that China is exploring a more active foreign policy agenda, a new arena for Beijing.
Finally, there is also the question of the special relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia. There have been rumors of an impending peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia as a culmination of the partnership between these countries to stop the Iranian nuclear program, according to AP News. The next months should reveal the true intents of China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.