April 13. 2024. 7:02

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The Brief — Chinese diplomacy at work

The episode may have escaped the attention of Brussels circles, but a Chinese-brokered deal to restore ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, respectively, the two leading Shi’ite and Sunni Muslim powers in the Middle East, is a diplomatic stunt that provides food for thought.

Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed in Beijing on 10 March to re-establish relations after a seven-year diplomatic rupture. Tehran and Riyadh said they had agreed to resume diplomatic relations and re-open embassies within two months, adding that their foreign ministers would meet to implement the deal without mentioning a more detailed timeline.

To realise how extraordinary such a development is, let’s remember that the two countries are waging a proxy conflict, sometimes referred to as the Middle East Cold War, and that a terrible background weighs on their relations.

On 2 January 2016, Saudi Arabia executed nearly 50 people, including prominent Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Protesters in Tehran stormed the Saudi embassy, and Shi’ite Iran’s top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed “divine vengeance” for Nimr’s execution.

Five days later, Iran accused Saudi Arabia of air strikes on its Yemen embassy, a claim that Riyadh dismissed.

But even before that, Saudi Arabia and Iran had technically been at war in Yemen.

After the Houthi militia in Yemen ousted the UN-backed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour in February 2015, with support from Iran, Saudi Arabia, leading a coalition of nine countries from West Asia and North Africa, launched an intervention in 2015 in response to calls from Mansour. A civil war ensued in Yemen.

According to the UN, it is sometimes called a ‘forgotten conflict’, in which a quarter million people, including many children, have lost their lives, to the stunning indifference of the West.

In September 2019, Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for attacks on its oil installations that knocked out half of the kingdom’s supply while a rocket exploded near the US embassy in Baghdad.

At that time, the then US president Donald Trump said he could “order the official end of Iran”, although Tehran denied involvement. In the meantime, more mass executions in Saudi Arabia, which reportedly included Shi’ite Muslims, infuriated Tehran.

The road map announced in Beijing on 10 March appears to result from several rounds of talks. It was announced after four days of previously undisclosed talks in Beijing between top security officials from the two rival Middle East powers.

China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, described the deal as a victory for dialogue and peace, adding that Beijing would continue to play a constructive role in addressing tough global issues.

The US clearly tried to downplay the Chinese diplomatic success, which to some extent caught Washington off-guard. Washington may not appreciate a détente vis-à-vis Tehran at a time when it has been trying to increase pressure against the Islamic Republic.

Possibly, the EU suspects China’s interest in the deal to be the enlargement of the BRICS, not only with Iran but also with Saudi Arabia, and the creation of a new world currency.

In a short statement, the EU welcomed the resumption of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran without mentioning China, although Beijing is the guarantor of the agreement.

“The EU acknowledges the diplomatic efforts leading to this important step”, the statement said. It also fell short of expressing hopes to rein in Tehran’s nuclear programme or mentioning Yemen.

Clearly, at a time when the US administration is increasingly confrontational towards Beijing, the EU feels uncomfortable about embracing China as a peace broker.

One thing is certain: Beijing’s capacity to deliver on this deal will be carefully scrutinised in Brussels and EU capitals.

And if the deal holds, yes, it could be a precursor of Chinese mediation between Kyiv and Moscow, but we are not there yet.

The Roundup

Chinese President Xi Jinping could wade deeper than before into Ukraine diplomacy as soon as next week, staging both his first trip to Russia and his first talks with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy since Moscow’s invasion.

Evaluation by the European Commission of Ukraine’s progress in fulfilling the recommendation for EU accession will be presented in May and by then, Kyiv will complete the implementation of most of them, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration, Olha Stefanishyna, told European Pravda.

The European Commission has rejected calls from the soft drinks industry to reserve recovered PET bottles in priority for recycling into new food-grade plastics, saying this risked causing distortions on the market for secondary materials.

As the EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive enters the home stretch, it faces a first crucial test in the European Parliament this week, where opposition is lying in wait.

The EU’s Temporary Crisis and Transition Framework (TCTF), which allows member states to subsidise sustainable technologies, is welcomed by advocates for green industrial policy – but some NGOs fear it will be counterproductive for the environment and SMEs.

Leaders of the US, Australia and Britain are set to unveil plans to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines on Monday (13 March), in a major push against China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.

Look out for…

  • European Parliament plenary in Strasbourg continues.
  • Commission President Ursula von der Leyen participates in meeting of College of Commissioners.
  • Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides meets with Italy’s Health Minister Orazio Schillaci.
  • Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council meeting continues on Tuesday.
  • Economic and Financial Affairs Council meeting.