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HomeGeopolitical CompassArabian PeninsulaIran-Saudi Arabia Rapprochement: A Perspective of Neoclassical Realism

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rapprochement: A Perspective of Neoclassical Realism

Authors: Maryam Nawaz, Asif Amin, Muhammad Faizan Asghar 

Affiliation: School of Integrated Social Sciences, University of Lahore, Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan.

Organization/Publisher: Global International Relations Review

Date/place: Winter 2023, Islamabad, Pakistan

Type of Literature: Research paper

Word Count: 5564

Link: 10.31703/girr.2023(VI-I).05  

Keywords: Rapprochement, Geo-economics, Geo-strategic, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia


The West Asian region, aka Middle East, has long been a region shaped by the strategic interests of global powers, with the United States historically holding a dominant position. However, a tectonic shift is unfolding as China emerges as a key player in the world’s political economy. China’s recent role as a mediator in the Iran-Saudi Arabia peace deal has positioned it as a significant player in the region, challenging the traditional influence of the US. The authors of this article employ the theoretical framework of Neoclassical Realism to analyze the motivations and implications of this landmark development.

They start by elaborating on Neoclassical Realism, arguing that it provides valuable insights into the complex interplay between state-level variables and international systemic factors that shape foreign policy behavior. According to them, Neoclassical Realism acknowledges the significance of the anarchical nature of states, balance of power dynamics, and relative material power while emphasizing that decision-making is also influenced by the perceptions and preferences of political leaders and domestic structures. This enables an understanding of the nuanced interactions between the involved actors and the geopolitical landscape.

Turning to Iran and Saudi Arabia relations, the article argues that the two counties have been regional rivals for decades, marked by tensions over various geopolitical issues, including oil export policies, aspirations for regional leadership, and relations with Western nations. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 significantly strained relations as Iran’s Islamic Republic threatened the Saudi monarchy’s legitimacy based on Islam. The ‘Arab Spring’ and conflicts in Yemen and Syria further escalated tensions, leading to the severance of diplomatic ties between the two in 2016.

As regards the motivations behind the Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement, the authors maintain that the Saudi-Iran peace deal, mediated by China, represents a major breakthrough in a relationship long characterized by hostility. It was driven by several factors, including Saudi Arabia’s failure in foreign policymaking, Iran’s strategic partnership with China, Iran’s nuclear developments, Saudi Arabia’s desire to diversify security partners, and China’s economic interests in the Persian Gulf region, which will be elaborated on as follows.


  1. Saudi Arabia’s Failure in Foreign Policymaking:

Over the past decade, Saudi Arabia has faced challenges in its foreign policy endeavors, such as its participation in the unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the protracted war in Yemen. The war in Yemen, in particular, has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and highlighted the limitations of Saudi Arabia’s military endeavors. In this context, seeking a diplomatic resolution with Iran may offer Saudi Arabia a chance to extricate itself from the Yemeni quagmire and mitigate its regional vulnerabilities.


  1. Iran’s Strategic Partnership with China:

In 2021, Iran signed a 25-year ‘strategic partnership’ with China, marking a significant deepening of ties between the two nations. Despite US sanctions, China continued to import large quantities of Iranian oil, cementing their economic relationship. Iran’s pursuit of economic diversification and stronger ties with the ‘Middle East’ as an alternative to the West also played a role in its willingness to engage in rapprochement with Saudi Arabia.


  1. Iran’s Nuclear Development and Saudi Arabia’s Security Concerns:

Iran’s increased enrichment of uranium to 83% has raised concerns among regional actors and led to closer military collaboration between the Israeli regime and the United States. The authors speculate that Saudi Arabia, fearing potential security risks, may have sought to neutralize some regional players, including Iran, and prepare a strategy to respond to a potential nuclear development or future attack.


  1. Saudi Arabia’s Desire to Diversify its Security Partners:

Under the Biden administration, Saudi Arabia has shown signs of frustration with its traditional security partners. It is seeking to branch out its security alliances and explore working with other players on regional issues. The authors maintain that this desire for greater autonomy in its security decisions might have contributed to its willingness to engage in dialogue with Iran, with China as a mediator.


  1. Chinese Economic Interests in the Persian Gulf Region:

China’s burgeoning economic interests in the ‘Middle East’, particularly in energy resources, have motivated its involvement in regional diplomacy. As the largest trading partner and buyer of oil exports for both Iran and Saudi Arabia, China recognizes the need to maintain stability and security in the region to safeguard its economic interests.


The paper argues that the China-brokered peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia holds profound implications for the geopolitical and geo-economic landscape of the ‘Middle East’ in the following aspects:

Regional Security and Stability: The authors maintain that the thaw in relations between the long-time rivals has the potential to lead to moderated rivalry and tensions in the region, which in turn could bring about greater security and stability. This could mean attracting more investors and businesses, resulting in increased economic development and growth with reduced political risks.

Resolution of Ongoing Conflicts: The improved relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia may impact ongoing conflicts in the region, such as the war on Yemen. De-escalation in Yemen was a prerequisite for the peace deal, which could potentially lead to the reconstruction and development of affected countries and decrease human suffering.

Cooperation in Managing Oil Prices: Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are major oil producers, and their cooperation in managing oil prices and production could benefit their economies and possibly stabilize global energy markets. The region is at risk of attacks on energy facilities, as evidenced by previous incidents, and cooperation between the two countries could mitigate such risks.

China’s Enhanced Influence: China’s involvement in brokering peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran boosts its influence in the ‘Middle East’. By playing a role in resolving long-standing conflicts and advancing its strategic interests, China solidifies its position as a key player in the region, challenging the US’s traditional role.


The authors conclude that the China-brokered peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia signifies a momentous turning point in the geopolitics of the ‘Middle East’. China’s increasing involvement in West Asia challenges the US’s traditional role as the hegemon in the region, establishing China as a new influential power. The evolving dynamics necessitate a re-evaluation of traditional strategies and alliances as West Asia enters a new geopolitical reality. Continued diplomatic efforts will be essential to maintain stability and peace in the region amidst the changing power dynamics and the emergence of new actors. The resolution of Iran-Saudi tensions may hold the key to unlocking the region’s potentials and fostering economic cooperation, while China’s role as a mediator provides an opportunity to reshape the regional political landscape. As the ‘Middle East’ navigates this shifting geopolitical terrain, careful diplomacy and engagement will be crucial to ensure a prosperous and stable future for the region.

By: Dr. Setareh Sadeqi, CIGA Researcher



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