Another potential game changer

16-03-2023 10:13 AM
Michael Jansen

Last week, I wrote about how the visit to Tehran of International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi could be a game changer by heralding a fresh effort to provide the agency real time access to developments in Iran's nuclear programme. Iran's compliance could lead to the renewal of talks involving the five parties — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — still committed to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for limiting Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for lifiting sanctions. The US exited the deal in 2018 and imposed hundreds of sanctions on Iran, prompting it to breach its obligations and expand its nuclear programme. Upon taking office, the Biden administration was expected to re-enter the JCPOA but has, instead, procrastinated and prevaricated while Iran has enriched uraiium to a level approaching the 90 per cent needed to build bombs and amass a stockpile of uranium enriched to different levels.

Last Friday another potential game changer was heralded when Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to resume diplomatic relations after a seven-year disruption. The recall of ambassadors occurred after the Saudi embassy in Tehran was ransacked and torched in January 2016 by Iranians angered over the execution of Nimr Al Nimr, a dissident Saudi Shiite cleric.

Ties between the world's two main Sunni and Shia powers have long been tense and testy. This was true under the pro-Western shah and has continued during the reign of the anti-Western clerical government. Iraq has brokered multiple meetings between the sides for more than two years. Oman has been mediating quietly in the background. It took China, which has been reasserting its influence in the region, four days to achieve the renewal of relations.

If the restoration of ambassadors only eases relations between two regional heavyweights, this amounts to a plus. But, if this launches efforts to resolve multiple differences between Riyadh and Tehran, there could be major regional benefits as well a reorientation of the region itself on the world stage.

On the JCPOA issue, Riyadh and Tehran could both call for negotiations to resume with regional players added in order to exert pressure on the US to re-join the deal and to deliver on its commitments to lift sanctions connected with the JCPOA. Although the involved in negotiating the JCPOA, the Obama administration cheated by failing to lift sanctions. This denied Iran expected benefits of the JCPOA and deepened Tehran's mistrust of the US.

A return to JCPOA talks would be welcome at a time the Biden administration — spurred by Israel — has grown increasingly hawkish toward Iran. The administration has joined Israel in building up a case for intervention as did George W. Bush before waging its illegal and disastrous 2003 war on Iraq.

There is serious concern in the Gulf that an Israeli or Israeli-US attack on Iran could lead to Iranian retaliation against Gulf Cooperation Council members which have had close ties to the US. This has prompted them to expand their options by courting China and Russia. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) — which followed Saudi Arabia's example, returned its ambassador to Tehran last year. London-based Amwaj media has revealed that Bahrain and Iran have held "low profile exchanges" in recent months. Once a Saudi ambassador returns to Tehran, Bahrain would be the sole Gulf country without an ambassador in Iran.

Saudi National Security Adviser Musaad Bin Mohammed Alban expressed the hope that constructive dialogue would continue with the aim of enhancing "security and stability in the region and the world." He praised China for its "positive role" as mediator.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the restorations a "victory for dialogue" and pledged that Beijing would continue to adopt a positive role in dealing with global hotspots. Commenting on the West's total preoccupation the Ukraine, he stated. "The world is not just limited to the Ukraine issue."

His words amounted to a challenge by a major Asian power to the unipolar reign of the US and its subservient Western allies which began in 1989-90 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The emergence of bipolarity — or even better multipolarity — could provide some checks-and-balances on US unilateralism and bullying.

On Saturday, delegates from Yemen's Saudi-sponsored government and Houthi rebels, who receive some aid from Iran, met in Geneva to implement a deal for an exchange of prisoners and extension of the ceasefire in place since April. Since December 2018, UN envoy Hans Grundberg has held talks on a proposal which has not been fully implemented. In April last year, a six-month ceasefire went into effect and has largely held although it has not been formally renewed. According to academic Kenneth Katzman. writing on the Soufan Centre website, there is expectation that the ceasefire could be reinstated since the blockade of Houthi-held ports has been eased and new humanitarian aid has been pledged. Talks between the Houthis and the government continue to be brokered by Oman while the UN has focused on the ceasefire.

Hizbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has welcomed the Saudi-Iran deal but declared it should not have any impact on Lebanon's internal politics. Riyadh-Tehran estrangement has deepened division between Hizbollah and the main Maronite Christian factions, the right wing Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement. For the presidency Hizbollah supports Suleiman Frangie, the grandson of a former president who is seen as being close to Syria. While Saudi Arabia does not support him, its Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan has said, "Lebanon needs Lebanese rapprochement, not Iranian-Saudi rapprochement. Lebanon must seek its interest and politicians must put the Lebanese interest before any other interest."

This could cease to be an issue if the Saudis reconcile with Russia and Iran-backed Syrian President Bashar Assad. The UAE has taken a lead in efforts to restore relations with Assad by returning the Emirati ambassador to Damascus and encouraging Oman, Saudi-allied Bahrain and others to follow suit. The February 6th deadly and devastating earthquakes in Syria and Turkey has prompted Saudi Arabia to provide humanitarian aid to Syrian victims and indicated that Riyadh could eventually resume relations with Damascus.

The resumption of relations between Riyadh and Tehran could also ease tensions within Iraq where the new government, dominated by pro-Iran Shia parties, has been flexing its muscles without resolving the problems of insecurity, unemployment and the lack of water and power faced by Iraqis since the 2003 US war and occupation of that country.

Regional actors may be especially eager to sort out their differences and solidify relations with China and its ally Russia ahead of the 2024 US presidential election which might return to the White House erratic and destabilising Donald Trump whose meddling during his first term has caused considerable damage.

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