The reconciliation between Saudi Arabia, leader of the Sunni Muslim world, and Iran, leader of the Shiite Muslim world, finally makes possible an era of peace in the Middle East. It was made possible by Russia, ally of the two enemy brothers, and negotiated first in Iraq and Oman before being concluded by China, Iran’s millennial ally, acting impartially. This agreement closes eleven years of wars and Western influence.
It was a momentous event, the importance of which is not perceived outside the Middle East: Saudi Arabia and Iran reconciled… in China. Three signatures at the bottom of a document reshuffle all the cards in this region.
Since the 19th century, the Arab world was first dominated by the United Kingdom and France on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, then by the United States. These powers brought both freedom and oppression. The United Kingdom excelled in dividing the actors in the region and manipulating them against each other so as to exploit the region’s wealth with minimal military involvement.
France was divided between the worst kind of colonizers and the most enlightened decolonizers. The United States has always had an imperial vision of the region, with the exception of a few years at the end of the Second World War when it supported the nationalists.
This period has just ended with the arrival of China. As always, China has watched for a very long time and acted slowly, with unwavering perseverance.
These agreements were preceded by long negotiations, first in Iraq and then in Oman. Iraq has a Muslim population that is one-third Sunni and two-thirds Shia. During the war against Iran, Iraqi Shiites fought against Iranian Shiites without any qualms. Today, to show his fellow Sunnis that he is not subservient to Iran, Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr had to go to Riyadh. Iraq, more than any other, needs this peace to survive. Oman, on the other hand, is neither strictly speaking Shia nor Sunni. The sultanate claims to be a third stream, ibadism. It can therefore legitimately claim to be a mediator between Sunnis and Shiites.
During his trip to Riyadh in December 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping did not try to flatter his interlocutors in order to obtain preferential oil rates. On the contrary, he was gently blunt: as long as the region was the scene of incessant confrontation, it would not be possible to build the Silk Roads and develop trade there. Nor had he sought to defend the misunderstood interests of his Iranian allies.
While the latter claim islands in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, the Lesser and Greater Tunb, as well as Abu Musa, President Xi included his support for the United Arab Emirates in the joint communiqué he signed with the Gulf Cooperation Council . It was this authority that enabled him to assure that he would ensure that Iran would never acquire an atomic bomb.
The Chinese have been Iran’s allies for thousands of years. Chinese statues can be seen in the ancient city of Persepolis and on the ancient Silk Road, Mandarin was not spoken, but Farsi (Persian). Beijing, which participated in the 4+1 negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue, knows with certainty that Western accusations about Iranian ambitions are false.
Everyone at that time could see that Beijing was not positioning itself according to its interests or those of its allies, but according to its principles. China appeared to be a reliable partner, or at least more reliable than the West.
There is certain panache for China to reconcile Muslims among themselves, while the West accuses it of martyring its Muslim minority in Xinjang, going so far as to claim that it imprisons 1.5 million Uighurs. Yet, as President Xi reminded his parliament last week, 150 million tourists have been able to travel freely through the country and see that Islam is a religion like any other and that there is no infrastructure to imprison so many people.
At the end of World War II, the United States signed the USS Quincy Pact with King Ibn Saud, the founder of the state that bears his name, Saudi Arabia. This document, the exact text of which has never been published, guaranteed that Washington would receive Saudi oil for its military (not for its civilian economy) in exchange for its commitment to protect the Saud dynasty. President George W. Bush renewed it in 2005.
Subsequently, the West, following US President Jimmy Carter, considered that access to Middle Eastern oil was a matter not of the sovereignty of the producing states, but of their “national security” . This meant that the Arabs and Persians had to submit to a foreign military presence. To this end, Washington established a regional command, CentCom, in 1983 and opened a number of military bases there. The regional “viceroy”, as the Pentagon called him, could destroy any state that refused to sell him its hydrocarbons. Incidentally, the Arabs and Persians did not object, as the United States paid better than the British and French.
This domination meant, from the beginning, the misfortune of the populations. Washington, disappointed by the anti-imperialist obstinacy of Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, whom it had helped to overthrow the Shah Reza Pahlevi, pushed one of its agents, President Saddam Hussein, to launch a war against Iran. For eight years (1980-88), the West, supporting both sides at the same time, bled them of a million lives.
In 1987, violent clashes opposed Iranian pilgrims to Saudi police in Mecca. Iran broke off diplomatic relations for the first time, until 1991.
At that time, for Washington, it was not a question of opposing Sunnis to Shiites, but Arabs to Persians. Once the USSR disappeared, the Pentagon organized the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992-95), a European Muslim state. It was a question for the US strategists of testing the possibility of partitioning a country (Yugoslavia) and of mobilizing their allies against the populations of Russian culture (the Serbs, the Montenegrins and the Macedonians). They entrusted the organization of Muslim troops to another of their agents, Osama Bin Laden, who became a military advisor to President Alija Izetbegović. He coordinated the Saudi projection forces and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on the battlefield .
Men who make history are rarely motivated by theological nitpicking. They defend what they believe to be the interests of their people. The fact that, for three years, the Saudi and Iranian armed forces were built, not against each other, but side by side, does not prevent their theologians from always inveighing against each other. It is necessary to distinguish politics from the role of clerics. I do not say religions, but clerics, and not to overestimate them.
In 2011, the Foreign Office launched the Arab Spring operation on the model of the “Great Arab Revolt” of 1916-1918 (that of Lawrence of Arabia). London’s aim was to overthrow governments over which it had no influence, but the people were trying to gain real freedom and riots were spreading everywhere. Many of the revolutionaries took their cue from Imam Khomeini. A revolution broke out in Bahrain where the people, mostly Shiite, tried to overthrow the Sunni ruling family. Taking fright, Saudi Arabia sent its tanks and put down the rebellion. Iran supported the Shiite revolutionaries against the Saudi tanks. It is at this moment, and not before as far as recent history is concerned, that the Middle East split between Sunnis and Shiites.
This division would only deepen throughout the Syrian war. The West supported the Muslim Brotherhood, with the Pentagon trying to destroy everything and spread general chaos (Rumsfeld/Cebrowski doctrine), while the Axis of Resistance (around Iran) resisted it.
However, two things are wrong:
On the one hand, the alliance between Syria and Iran has nothing to do with the events. It dates back to the time when the Shah of Iran saw himself as the gendarme of the region. The United States asked him to ally himself with Syria (which was not yet a Basist country) to counterbalance Israel.
On the other hand, starting in 2015, as Syria began to weaken and Iran had little to help it, Russia intervened militarily to support the Syrian Arab Republic against the jihadists.
Events accelerated. A new stampede occurred in 2015 during the pilgrimage to Mecca, killing Iranians among others without the Saudi police intervening. In Yemen, Iran supports the Partisans of God (Ansarallah) against the Saudis who are trying to control the country with Israel to exploit its oil wealth . Finally, in 2016, Riyadh executed the leader of its internal opposition, Shiite Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, along with jihadists . Iran reacted to this provocation and ended its diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.
For 7 years, the Middle East has been paralyzed. No conflict can evolve because it always opposes the two sides of Islam. This is exactly what the West wanted and what Israel has maintained. It is not surprising, therefore, that the only people who have been outraged by the Saudi-Iranian peace are Israelis.
The agreement just signed was negotiated by China on the basis of non-interference in internal affairs. The Iranians might have feared that the Saudi Shiites would pay the price, as they did six years ago with Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. But Tehran has understood that times have changed. Riyadh will respect its Shiite minority, because it too has an interest in peace. This does not prevent the discriminatory prejudices of Saudi Sunnis from remaining entrenched in their behaviour for a long time.
The international relations that Beijing and Moscow are promoting are based on mutual respect and not on confrontation. To the division and wars of the West, they oppose exchanges, trade and collaboration.