The unpublished security clauses of the Iran-Saudi deal and its implication on regional and global security

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The public statement that announced the deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia contains only the contours of a detailed deal whose terms are guaranteed by China and whose terms will be revealed gradually in the next few weeks. One such details concern the long terms security agreement as well as the immediate action to be taken by both sides.

First, a general point related to how Iran sees this agreement:

Iranian leaders see normal relations with its Arab neighbor to be intimately connected to their security, not to political disagreements or forms of government in neighboring states. To that end, they are delegating the work to the head of the national security office which reports directly to the Leader, Ali Khamenei, not the president.

Importantly as well is the fact that the head of Iran’s security council is also an ethnic Arab. So Iran is speaking to its Arab neighbors in the language they understand and through the people they can relate to. That is significant.

Another major point that was agreed upon and is now coming to light is the fact that both governments agreed to never wage a war against the other or aid others to wage a war against Iran or Saudi Arabia.

That was revealed March 17 to a Reuters’ reporter who spoke with an Iranian official. The same source, said that China’s secret role during the great success that was announced last week, represented by the restoration of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, has caused a shock in the balance of power in the Middle East, where the United States has been the main deal maker for decades.

The Chinese expressed their willingness to help Tehran and Riyadh narrow the gap and overcome outstanding issues during the talks in Oman and Iraq to achieve long term security under this deal.

The deal does not just cover mutual security concerns, it also includes their collaboration to maintain regional security. The two sides will work together to maintain security in the Persian Gulf and ensure the flow of oil; and work together to resolve regional issues, according to the Iranian source. The public statement announced from China, was brief and focused mostly on these five issues, in cryptic manner:

1. The embassies of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic Iran will reopen in less than two months.
2. Respect for the sovereignty of States.
3. Activating the security cooperation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran signed in 2001.
4. Activating the cooperation agreement in the economic, trade, investment, technology, science, culture, sports and youth sectors signed between the parties in 1998.
5. Urging the three countries to exert all efforts to promote regional and international peace and security.

At first glance, the first four clauses suggest that the Chinese-brokered deal is essentially a mending of diplomatic relations between the two countries. A closer look would reveal that the fifth clause is far from the standard text inserted into joint statements between states.

The clause establishes a new reference for conflicts in West Asia, in which China plays the role of peacemaker and a guarantor, in partnership with Iran and Saudi Arabia. This deal was negotiated at the highest level among the Chinese, Saudi, and Iranian officials first during Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia in December 2022; and second during Raisi’s visit to China few weeks later.

Because the stalled talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran stalled with the change in leadership in Iraq, progress was not expected resume quickly just because China became involved. However, the two parties were willing to build on what was negotiated in previous meetings in Iraq and Oman, which gave the Chinese negotiators momentum. Because of the previous discussions, the Chinese representative managed to bridge the divide between the two delegations, after which the parties obtained approval from their respective leaderships to announce the deal on Friday, March 10, 2023.

The Persian Gulf is a strategic region for the world, but importantly, it is the main source of energy for the manufacturing powerhouse-China. For this reason, Beijing intervened to reduce tensions between its historic and trusted ally, Iran, and Saudi Arabia which is pivoting to the East as it senses the declining interest of its historical ally for seventy years, the United States, in being involved in the region.

The recent legal trouble of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s (MBS) when Washington’s security apparatus concluded that he was involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, has forced him to engage in what some commentators call “strategic adventurism”. However, as an ambitious ruler, still learning under the protection of his father, he is now able to exploit global changes to mitigate for the decline of US regional influence. Like many other regional rulers in the Arab world, Bin Salman sees signs for the emergence of a multipolar, post-American order, and this shift allowed him an opportunity to explore other international options separate from Washington, and in service of their immediate national interests. Saudi Arabia’s current interests are related to the ambitious political, economic, financial, and cultural targets that MBS has set out for his country. These new interests are based on the following guidelines:

• Diversifying regional and global partnerships in order to adapt to global systemic changes that will help realize Riyadh’s grand plans for 2030 and beyond.
• Establishing security and political stability to allow Saudi Arabia to implement its major projects, especially those outlines in MBS’ “Vision 2030,” through which Riyadh envisions itself transforming into a regional incubator for finance, business, media, and the entertainment industry – similar to the role played by the UAE in decades past, or by Beirut before the Lebanese civil war in 1975.

The short and long terms plans for Saudi Arabia depend on regional stability. Saudi rulers wanted to achieve such stability by replacing unreliable Arab rulers with ones they can rely on. That was the thinking behind Saudi Arabia’s support for the regime change activities in Syria and Yemen, and even his attempt to change the ruler of Qatar. His war in Yemen went nowhere and in fact backfired when the Yemeni government in Sanaa was able to launch many attacks with rockets and drones disabling the production and shipment of oil for weeks. The Saudi rulers also wanted a regime change in Iran as the diplomatic cable leaks had revealed. The televised interview of MBS on a Saudi television channel in which he characterized the Iranian leaders as irrational fanatics driven by a messianic vision that is incompatible with reason show the Saudi preference for a different kind of government in Iran, which was aligned with US preference—regime change has always been the best option for Washington.

Now, with China and Russia integrating their security and economic strategies with Iran’s, the Saudi rulers have realized that Iran under the current system is here to stay. Because the importance of regional and domestic security and stability are vital for Riyadh to be able to implement its strategic goals, they have no other option but to enter into a security arrangement with Iran, especially one that is backed by a powerful actor, like China. Therefore, confidential clauses were inserted into the Beijing Agreement to assure Iran and Saudi Arabia that their security objectives will be met.

Sources from both Iran and Saudi Arabia are revealing more details that are not spelled out in the public accouchement. Among these specific steps that must be taken by both sides, the following are important to keep in mind, and to monitor their implementation soon, even before the formal resumption of diplomatic relations:

• Both Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran are expected not to engage in any activity that destabilizes either state, at the security, military or media levels.
• Saudi Arabia is expected to stop its funding of and not to fund media outlets that seek to destabilize Iran, such as Iran International. This item is similar to the one included by the Saudi rulers when they broke relations with Qatar and sent them a list of demands consisting of 13 items, one of which was the shuttering of Aljazeera.
• Saudi Arabia is expected not to fund organizations designated as terrorists by Iran, such as the People’s Mojahidin Organization (MEK), Kurdish groups based in Iraq, or militants operating out of Pakistan.
• Iran is expected to ensure that its allied organizations do not violate Saudi territory from inside Iraqi territory and Iran would guarantee that its allied organizations do not carry out any strikes from Iraqi lands against Saudi Arabia.
• Saudi Arabia and Iran, both are expected to exert all possible efforts to resolve conflicts in the region, particularly the conflict in Yemen, in order to secure a political solution that secures lasting peace in that country.

Although the Beijing statement primarily addresses issues related to diplomatic rapprochement, Iranian-Saudi understanding appears to have been brokered mainly around security imperatives.

The security priorities of this agreement should have been easy to see in Beijing. After all, the deal was struck between the heads of the National Security Council of Saudi Arabia and Iran, and included the participation of intelligence services from both countries. Present in the Iranian delegation were officers from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and from the intelligence arms of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

To underscore Saudi need for regional security, and aware of the potential for war triggered by more violence against Palestinians, and to signal that Saudi Arabia will not join the so-called Abrahamic accord, which Iran opposes, the Saudi delegation stressed Riyadh’s commitment to the 2002 Arab peace initiative; indicating that they will refuse normalization with Tel Aviv before the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital.

What is perhaps most remarkable, and illustrates the determination by the parties to strike a deal without the influence of spoilers, is that Iranian and Saudi intelligence delegations met in the Chinese capital for five days without Western media being tipped off about it, which might suggest that Western governments were kept in the dark—though Saudi Arabia claimed that they informed the US administration before signing the deal. It is perhaps yet another testament that China is gearing up to play a major role in the global geopolitics, which could raise hope if they push harder with their peace proposal that they are promoting to end the armed conflict in Ukraine.


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