India’s silence on Beijing’s role in

Saudi Arabia-Iran deal is disquieting

news analysis

The Saudi Arabia-Iran agreement signed in Beijing on Friday, if successful, will have a far-reaching impact worldwide. The result of negotiations that were kept secret till they reached agreement could signal an easing of tensions between Riyadh and Tehran after many years; peace in Yemen, where the two countries have carried out proxy battles; and a boost for China’s efforts to project itself as a peacemaker.

While the agreement has been welcomed by the United Nations, France, Jordan and West Asian countries, it is also seen as a counter to the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords, and will be greeted with some concern in the U.S., Israel and the UAE.

Disquieting for Delhi

Though New Delhi has not formally reacted to the announcement so far, the fact that two close partners such as Saudi Arabia and Iran have reached a deal with Beijing’s influence is disquieting, given India’s current tensions with China, experts say. Previous attempts brokered by Iraq and Oman had not succeeded in any breakthrough. “While Saudi-Iranian normalisation is good news, China being the midwife is bad news for South Block,” said P.R. Kumaraswamy, Professor of Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). “However, it is an opportunity for India to rework its priorities and pay serious attention to regional developments” rather than be “surprised” by the development, he added.

Other analysts have pointed to India’s focus on the I2U2 quadrilateral along with Israel, the U.S. and UAE, which may have taken the spotlight away from its ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia. In November, Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammad Bin Salman cancelled a visit to India, which is expected to be rescheduled this year. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian cancelled his participation in this year’s Raisina Dialogue, run by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Observer Research Foundation, reportedly after protesting a promotional video for the event that appeared critical of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

Strained U.S-Saudi ties

While the U.S.-Iran tensions are high given the recent breakdown in talks over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, the Beijing agreement also shows up the strain in Washington’s ties with Saudi Arabia. Despite U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Riyadh last year, Saudi Arabia refused to heed his request to cap oil prices by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to reduce demand for Russian oil in the wake of the Ukraine conflict. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Riyadh in December was a stark contrast, in terms of more than a dozen agreements on energy and infrastructure that were signed. Iranian President Mr. Raisi visited Beijing in February, and Mr. Xi is expected to travel to Tehran later to take forward talks on the Belt and Road Initiative and an MoU worth an estimated $400 billion for oil and infrastructure projects.

Diplomats, however, point out that Riyadh’s agreement with Tehran does not signify a rejection of the U.S., so much as it shows that new global players are exerting their influence. “While the balance of power remains with the U.S., its influence and commitment in the region have definitely reduced, given an absence of strategic vision in conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and so on . The past decade has shown many Middle Eastern countries losing faith in the U.S., and broadening their options to players like Russia for energy matters, and China for economic and political matters,” said Talmiz Ahmad, a former Ambassador and author of West Asia at War.