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03/23/2023 United States (International Christian Concern) – China recently brokered a diplomatic agreement to normalize relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two historic rivals. The deal marks a significant shift in the Middle East’s geopolitical balance of powers and provides important insight into Beijing’s aspirations in the region and beyond.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have warred for years, largely via proxy conflicts across the region. Extremism reached its height in 2016 when violent events between the two powers boiled over. Protestors ransacked the Saudi embassy in response to Saudi Arabia’s killing of Shiite leader Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in a full break of relations between Tehran and Riyadh. In response to the protests, Riyadh closed its embassy and has spent the last seven years investing in other regional pacts, including with other Gulf Arab states and the United States, and in proxy wars designed to counter Iranian influence in the region.  

Potentially reversing these years of tensions, Iran and Saudi Arabia reached a normalization agreement earlier this month after five days of meetings in Beijing and over a year of diplomatic talks in Iraq and Oman.  

“Following talks, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have agreed to resume diplomatic relations and reopen embassies and missions within two months,” according to a joint statement issued by the two countries.  

There were also agreements to resume bilateral security and economic agreements made in 1998 and 2001, which never progressed due to tensions between the two countries. Both countries promised “respect for the sovereignty of states and the non-interference in internal affairs of states.”  

It is unclear how the deal will be carried out, but it implies a considerable transformation of the area’s political framework within the past seven years. All three countries involved in the deal are extremely hostile toward religious freedom, ranking among the worst in the world regarding rights for religious minorities. ICC and other international watchdogs have warned about deteriorating human rights conditions in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China for years.  

 Iran-Saudi Relations in 2016  

The Saudi-Iran break in January 2016 was not an isolated event. In 2016 and 2017, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates also withdrew their respective ambassadors from Iran amid concerns that the country was destabilizing the region and acting contrary to Gulf interests in the Middle East.  

To Saudi Arabia’s south, the Yemeni civil war reached new heights during this time as Iran aggressively armed Houthi rebels fighting against an Emirati Saudi-backed coalition. To the north, Iran was backing the Assad regime directly and through proxies. Syria was kicked out of the Arab League and isolated as civil war raged between Saudi-backed rebel groups and Assad’s Iran-backed government forces. The Islamic State was at its territorial peak in Syria and Iraq, with Iran using the Islam State insurgency to grow its influence in Saudi Arabia’s backyard.  

Finally, by the end of 2016, with Iranian power and influence growing rapidly across the Arab world, Saudi Arabia turned to the United States. In the following years, both nations found an ally in the incoming Trump administration, installing a “maximum pressure policy” against Iran as a central tenant of their foreign policy.  

This shared focus on countering Iran led to warming relations between longtime U.S. ally Israel and parts of the Arab world, including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Notably, Saudi Arabia did not normalize relations with Israel, though it did begin talks and commercial agreements with Israel. Reports suggest that talks of normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel were ongoing when Riyadh instead normalized relations with Tehran—a move certain to set back talks with Israel. Still, relations with Israel may be possible. The United Arab Emirates maintains diplomatic relations with Iran despite signing the Abraham Accords in 2020.   

The Landscape in 2023  

Today, geopolitics in the Middle East are shifting. For now, diplomacy and normalization between historical enemies are being favored over international isolation and proxy conflicts. Iran’s economic woes under sanctions and the domestic protests it recently experienced are making it difficult for Iran to fund its foreign interventions and are forcing Iran to reassess its strategic priorities in the region.  

Arab nations are inviting Syrian President Assad to their capitals again for the first time in a decade, Yemen’s fragile ceasefire agreement has held for longer than expected, and a flurry of normalization efforts between regional powers are producing monthly headlines, with several Gulf state extending olive branches to all sides of the region’s proxy conflicts. There is a cautious global optimism that the high-level political agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia will help resolve ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon.  

While reduced regional tensions will certainly relieve some of the sufferings in these countries, local and national issues that are integral to the crises remain. The resolution of these decades-old conflicts will require much deeper political will and greater compromise than this agreement lays out.  

After multiple failed talks in Iraq and Oman, the timing of this month’s agreement reveals something about the issues facing each of the three countries involved. China, which imports roughly 50% of its crude oil from Gulf states, has every interest in reducing tensions between the region’s big players. Iran appears to be concerned about its neighbors’ increasing comfort with Israel. Saudi Arabia, for its part, likely felt pressure to make a deal with Iran as protests which threatened the stability of the regime dissipated and Iran creeps ever closer to becoming a nuclear-armed state. 

Both ruled by authoritarian regimes, Iran and Saudi Arabia are notorious violators of their citizens’ human rights, including their right to religious freedom. Both nations have participated in major movements to export Islamic terrorism globally. Despite heading the two major branches of global Islam—Sunnism in the case of Saudi Arabia and Shiaism in Iran’s case—it should be no surprise that they find common ground in their policy of suppressing and persecuting Christianity and other unfavored religions.  

 Implications for Global Human Rights  

Notably, China was the nation to broker this agreement. An authoritarian nation itself, China persecutes Christians intensely and leads the world in the surveillance of religious minorities, including Muslims. China’s system of control and its network of concentration camps for Uyghur Muslims represents the world’s largest-scale current religious and ethnic genocide. 

 For decades, China has waged a global influence campaign in developing nations, including many that regularly engage in serious violations of human rights. Its development strategy ignores human rights violations in recipient nations. It has been described by many analysts as predatory, emphasizing the extraction of natural resources at the expense of labor and broader human rights. China does not predicate development aid or diplomatic relation on human rights conditions in the recipient country as the United States does, allowing it to build deep relations with oppressive regimes like Iran and countries like Saudi Arabia, where human rights concerns regularly rock relations with the United States.  

As China and the United States battle for global influence, the deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia does not represent a shift in power. Still, it is simply a symptom of the long-standing reality that China’s economic clout and friendly posture towards repressive authoritarianism puts it in a prime position to court and influence oppressive regimes worldwide.  

Though the agreement has yet to be implemented, it will likely have repercussions on human rights and religious freedom, not just in the Middle East but worldwide. In South Asia, for example, the deal could lead to friendlier relations between Iran and Pakistan, another chronic suppressor of religious freedom that has long hesitated to overture Iran for fear of losing Saudi financial support.  

While the softening of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia may have positive implications for certain conflicts, the agreement is a boon to China and the cause of authoritarianism around the world.  

As the international community weighs the geopolitical and economic implications of the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is important to remember the extent of human suffering created by these governments, especially on religious minorities who often have no recourse in a system created to repress and marginalize them at every turn. Leaders in Washington would do well to remember these minorities in their response.  

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