Shifting interests and alignments - Weekly Worker

Date: unknown



The Saudi-Iran deal brokered by China is bad news for the US, but especially Israel, says Yassamine Mather

Last week’s agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to normalise relations - part of a tripartite deal based on China’s mediation - is a clear sign of the evolving situation in the Middle East and the growing influence of China. The deal was actually signed in Beijing. Saudi Arabia’s closer relations with China means it is no longer toeing the US line - as shown in its continued cooperation with Russia, and its reluctance to increase oil production or reduce prices.

These are examples of the kind of challenges the US faces in the Middle East and the global south. According to Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, “Most of the developing world in Asia and Africa, including the Middle East, has not viewed the Ukraine war as the kind of definitive, transformational moment in international relations that the west does.”1

Then there is Gerald Feierstein, former US ambassador to Yemen, speaking to Al Jazeera: “Their interests, the Saudis have made clear, have focused on maintaining strong relations with their main security partner, the US; their number-one economic partner, China; and their key partner in Opec+, Russia.”

According to The Wall Street Journal,

Trade between China and Saudi Arabia was $87 billion in 2021, while Iran’s share of China’s total world trade last year was only 0.25%. However, Iran is a valuable political ally and China is keen to increase trade with Iran without fearing US sanctions. For China this is a step towards that long-term aim.

Last year, despite the slowdown caused by its ‘zero corona’ policy, China was a major customer of Saudi oil. Almost 22% of Saudi crude oil exports in 2022 were destined for China. Since 2018, and after the withdrawal of the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal), China has been the main customer for Iran’s oil despite US sanctions. However, neither Tehran nor Beijing has admitted the real situation and officials avoid giving statistics on Iran’s oil sales to China. Inevitably, in a desperate attempt to circumvent US sanctions, Iran sold oil to China at a price much lower than the market rate in order to serve its foreign exchange needs.

We should also remember the political significance of China’s mediation: it is asserting its authority as an upcoming world power in a region considered to be mainly under US influence.


In its report examining the dimensions of the tripartite agreement between Iran, Saudi Arabia and China for the resumption of political relations between Tehran and Riyadh, The Wall Street Journal refers to other details. Based on quotes from officials of the two countries, Saudi Arabia has agreed to reduce the critical tone of the Iran International TV channel. The channel’s owner, Volant, has rejected that allegation, claiming that the network is “independent”.

However, its departure from London suddenly makes more sense. This had nothing to do with threats to its staff, as claimed by the channel (and repeated in a fashion by Conservative security minister, Tom Tugendhat). A few months ago Iran International TV (also known as Saudi International) had allegedly hacked into the mobile phone of BBC Persian reporter Rana Rahimpour. It subsequently broadcast a conservation she had with her mother in Iran, in which she commented on Iran International TV’s association with Saudi Arabia and that country’s desire to divide Iran into small nation-states. The recording was then released on social media, causing problems both for the reporter and her parents. Lawyers acting on her behalf complained to Ofcom. According to a tweet from Ms Rahimpour on March 9,

Ofcom just informed me that Iran International surrendered its UK licence on 3 February, two weeks before moving to Washington and two weeks after my complaint about the defamatory biopic. Timing of their decision means they no longer risk losing Ofcom licence …2

Add to all this the fact that presumably Iran International funders were well aware of the imminent deal and did not want to get into an expensive legal case at a time when Saudi officials were likely to reduce their limitless budget.

The deal also marks a significant blow to Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s goal of isolating Iran in the region and Israel’s continued rapprochement with Saudi Arabia in the hope that it will pave the way for closer relations with other Arab countries. According to Aviv Bushinsky, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, his “premier goals are isolating Iran and expanding relations with Arab countries. And at the moment, he’s failed at both.”3 A senior official travelling with Netanyahu to Rome on March 10 apparently blamed the previous Israeli government and the Biden administration for the deal.

While no-one expects the announcement to signal the end of regional rivalry between the two countries, there will be practical consequences for diplomatic relations between the US and Israel. Should they decide to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities by the most direct route, they would need permission to use Saudi airspace. That might be less likely, now that Riyadh and Tel Aviv have renewed diplomatic relations .

Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Washington-based Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, puts it this way: “Would the Saudis be willing to even quietly join a coalition against Iran? Would they be willing to open up their airspace? I think all of that is now being called into question.”


For Iranians the economic impact of the deal was immediate. Iran’s currency, the rial, rose by more than 10% overnight, continuing a trend started following the visit of International Atomic Energy Authority chief Rafael Grossi’s visit to Tehran a week earlier.

On March 12 Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, claimed that an exchange of prisoners with the United States could happen soon and that an initial agreement has been reached, adding that the American side is “engaged in its own final technical coordinations”. However, Washington denied this: “Claims by Iranian officials that we have reached a deal for the release of the US citizens wrongfully held by Iran are false”. Then a “source close to US negotiations” told Reuters news agency that the prisoner exchange is closer than it has ever been, but one of the remaining sticking points is linked to the $7 billion in frozen Iranian oil funds in South Korea, thanks to US sanctions.

The last US prisoner to leave Iran was 85-year-old Iranian-American Baquer Namazi, who boarded a plane for Oman in October 2022. His son, Siamak Namazi, remains in Evin prison. He was allowed to participate in an interview with CNN from inside the prison, and he pleaded with US president Joe Biden to secure his release, as well as that of two other dual-nationality prisoners.

The contradictory messages from US and Iranian authorities regarding the exchange of prisoners, plus the continued support for Iran’s royalists from media outlets associated with US/UK foreign policy (such as Voice of America and BBC Persian), prove that, when it comes to the Islamic Republic, the Biden administration is following a number of parallel and at times contradictory policies. Despite denials, it is clear that Biden still wants to revive the Iran nuclear deal, while the US and its European allies are this week anticipating a banking crisis that could make the current cost-of-living situation far worse. No doubt the USA’s European allies are desperate for cheaper fuel and a nuclear deal that guarantees just that from Iran - as well as the potential for economic trade with one of the most populated, computer-literate countries of the Middle East.

In a parallel, yet connected, strategy the US is promoting the son of the ex-shah and his immediate allies, who are busy looking for other, more reliable alternatives to ‘regime change from above’ in Iran. As we approach the 20th anniversary of such a ‘regime change from above’ in Iraq, with all its disastrous consequences, no-one with an iota of intelligence can be in any doubt that the incompetent, semi-literate Reza Pahlavi, son of the former shah, makes Ahmed Chalabi, George Bush’s front man for regime change in Iraq, look a wise choice! I assume that the Biden administration - which considers itself, rightly or wrongly, more competent and more astute than the Republican administration of 2003 - does not want to repeat that kind of disaster. However, for the time being, when it comes to threatening the Islamic Republic with ‘regime change from above’, Pahlavi is a useful idiot. In fact I am not so much concerned about him and his allies: what is disheartening is the support they are getting from sections of the Iranian ‘left’ (here I have to qualify the term: we are talking about social-imperialists).

In the last week or so I have given a number of interviews to Persian TV stations, when I denounced Reza Pahlavi’s ‘charter’ and his claims to be the representative of Iran’s current protestors. For those who might not be familiar with his background, let me explain that this is a man who, after living in the US for over 40 years, responded to a question about his ‘feminist’ credentials by saying: “I have three daughters!” A man whose social media comments until recently (when he deleted some of the older posts) told us how he spent so much time on Caribbean holidays and in casinos. It goes without saying that he is the last person anyone should consider representative of the current protest movement.

While on social media myself, I have received the inevitable death threats and abuse we have come to expect from supporters of Reza Phalavi. What was shocking and upsetting, however, were the emails from those claiming to be on the left, warning that today is like the early days of the Islamic Republic, when the left “didn’t support liberals”! Let me make it clear that sections of the pro-Soviet left in Iran (both Stalinist and Trotskyist) supported reactionaries allied to Ruhollah Khomeini, who was to become the Islamic Republic’s first supreme leader. While that is unforgivable, the idea that the left should have supported ‘liberals’ such as Shapour Bakhtiar, who served as the shah’s last prime minister, is also stupid.

If Bakhtiar and co had been allowed by the US and its allies to remain in power, they would likely have been as repressive and dictatorial as the current regime. Our social-imperialists - day-dreaming about a bourgeois liberal Iran, where the working class can be ‘educated’ and become organised - have learned nothing from contemporary regional history. In addition to Iraq, there has been Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt … and, to be fair, some of the US choices for regime change in those countries were head and shoulder above Reza Pahlavi.