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West Asia’s New Challenges: Saudi-Iranian Normalization


  • An agreement to re-establish diplomatic ties, respect one another’s sovereignty, and maintain non-interference in one another’s domestic affairs was recently signed in Beijing by Saudi Arabia and Iran, represented by their national security advisers.
    • This agreement puts an end to the two Gulf neighbours’ seven-year diplomatic estrangement.


GS Paper-2: Bilateral, Regional and Global Groupings and Agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests.

Mains Question

India’s diplomacy faces difficulties as a result of China’s expanding influence in West Asia. Examine the claim critically. Include suggestions for ways to resolve this problem. (250 Words).

Background of Relations

  • The rivalry between the two dates back to pre-revolutionary Iran, when they fought it out for regional supremacy. After the 1979 revolution toppled the Iranian monarchy and transformed the nation into a Shia theocratic republic, sectarian and ideological flavours were added to the mix. In more recent times, it had become a cold war with both sides supporting their proxies in West Asia.
  • Formal ties between them were severed in 2016 after protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran in response to Riyadh’s execution of a revered Shia cleric.
  • They have now decided to begin anew thanks to China’s mediation.

Provisions of the Agreement

  • According to reports, Iran has agreed to stop future attacks against Saudi Arabia, particularly those coming from areas of Yemen that are under Houthi control (Iran backs Houthis, a Shia militia in Yemen while the Saudis back the government forces).
  • Saudi Arabia consented to limit Iran International, a Farsi news outlet that opposes the Iranian government (which the Iranian intelligence has termed a terrorist organization).
  • Before reopening embassies in each other’s capitals in two months, the foreign ministers of both nations will meet soon to negotiate the terms of the reconciliation.

Saudi Arabia’s outreach to Iran: Why?

  • In recent years, West Asia has undergone strategic realignments.
    • After a quarter-century, the UAE was the first Arab nation to normalise relations with Israel in 2020.
    • Israel and the Arab world grew closer in the years that followed.
  • The U.S.’s deprioritization of West Asia is one of the main causes of these realignments.
    • The Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s ascent in the Indo-Pacific are two of the larger foreign policy challenges facing the U.S.; Saudi Arabian-U.S. relations have also been tense recently.
    • In exchange for Saudi oil, America provided security guarantees that served as the foundation of the alliance.
    • Unlike during the Cold War, the United States is now among the top oil producers in the world and is less reliant on Gulf Arab nations.
  • This made it possible for American presidents to quickly deprioritize the region.
    • The U.S. turned a blind eye to the attack on Saudi oil facilities in 2019 (for which Iran was widely blamed), leading the Saudis to seek out alternative approaches to the Iran issue.
  • They decided to approach the Iranians as their solution.

What made Iran agree to the agreement?

  • Iran is enduring one of the most difficult periods of domestic pressure and economic isolation.
  • Tehran is aware that a temporary lift in Western sanctions is unlikely in the near future, and despite its crackdown at home, protests have not subsided.
    • Its currency is in trouble, and its economy is deteriorating.
  • Iran sought Chinese investments and currency support.
  • Therefore, a deal with Saudi Arabia could provide Iran with economic lifelines through China’s mediation.
    • Strategically, Iran is aware that such a deal might make it more difficult for the United States to persuade Arab nations and Israel to oppose it.
      • As a result, Tehran stands to gain from a reconciliation both economically and strategically.
  • What benefits does the deal have for China?
  • China is interested in serving as a peacemaker in West Asia for economic, regional, and strategic reasons.
    • As the biggest consumer of oil in the world, China depends on a stable energy market to continue growing.
      • The agreement heralds China’s emergence as a major power in West Asia on a regional scale.
    • The U.S. was a constant presence in the region during all of the major peace initiatives in the post-War era.
  • But the United States is not participating in the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
  • Furthermore, China is attempting to send a strong message to nations in the Global South. o This suggests that more significant changes in the global order are underway.

How does the United States view the deal?

  • The reconciliation has been praised by American officials.
    • According to the official story, a settlement between two of the major rival powers in West Asia would stabilise the area and help the global energy market.
  • However, from a strategic perspective, the U.S. would have to deal with uncomfortable questions about the agreement.

What difficulties do diplomats face?

  • The revival of the nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the control of Israel’s aggressiveness are necessary for regional security.
    • Although there are still questions about whether a deal to ease Iran sanctions will be possible given the country’s intensely divisive domestic environment.
  • It is anticipated that Israel’s domestic politics, which are also sharply divided and dominated by the extreme right wing, will prevent the JCPOA from being renewed and maintain a hostile attitude towards Iran.
  • Disagreements between Saudi Arabia and Iran will be challenging to resolve because of Saudi Arabia’s deep sense of strategic vulnerability towards its northern neighbour and worries that Shia proxies could destabilise neighbouring states.
    • Iran must be more proactive in convincing its neighbour of its good intentions. This effort would be strengthened by China’s active engagement with the two regional powers.

Way Forward

  • The agreement addresses the most serious regional conflict; it lowers regional tensions and establishes the framework for future discussions on enhancing relations and tackling contentious issues.
  • China has declared that it will likely play a more active and significant role in West Asian affairs.
  • However, India will need to engage with China in West Asia where they have a wide range of shared interests in energy security, free and open sea lanes, logistical connectivity, and, most importantly, regional stability. Recognizing that the management of its ties with China remains its diplomatic priority.
  • They can cooperate to advance their shared and local interests here.


The growing influence of China in the Middle East is currently a reality rather than just a theory.

December 2023