The writer is an
analyst and the
President of All
China mediates Iran-Saudi Arabia detente, raising eyebrows in Washington. Arch-rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia agree to end years of hostilities and restore relations in the deal. The successful talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Beijing are a victory for dialogue and peace, following the major diplomatic coup for China in Middle East geopolitics. After decades of U.S. failures in the region, China takes a turn as a Middle East power broker. Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations, in a joint statement from Saudi Arabia and Iran, which said the two countries had agreed to respect state sovereignty and not interfere in each other’s internal affairs. The statement also said Riyadh and Tehran had agreed to activate a security cooperation agreement signed in 2001. Riyadh, Tehran, and Beijing expressed their keenness to exert all efforts toward enhancing regional and international peace and security, offering major good news at a time of much turbulence in the world. In the statement, the three parties expressed their willingness to make every effort to strengthen international and regional peace and security. The landmark deal is a diplomatic win for China in a region where geopolitics has been dominated by the United States. China’s successful brokering of detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia forced the United States into the awkward position of applauding a major Middle East accord secured by its main geopolitical rival. Although, White House spokesman John Kirby said “We support any effort to de-escalate tensions”. But the signing of the accord in Beijing — which the Biden administration considers its No.1 geostrategic threat — represents the latest effort by Xi to stake out a larger political presence in the Middle East, where the United States has been the dominant outside power brokering agreements since the end of the Cold War, waging wars and exerting influence in an oil-rich region vital to the world’s energy security. Saudi Arabia, whose longtime partnership with Washington has soured since the 2018 killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by associates of the kingdom’s crown prince, applauded Beijing’s involvement in an open press event featuring a three-way handshake between China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi; Iran’s Supreme National Security Council secretary, Ali Shamkhani; and the national security adviser of Saudi Arabia, Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban.
The United States is a major defense provider to Saudi Arabia, including Patriot missile defense batteries. But allowing China to broker the diplomatic deal would threaten that relationship.
America’s Arab allies in Saudi Arabia and the broader Persian Gulf often lament the criticisms they receive from Washington over human rights abuses and a lack of political freedoms and elections — complaints they do not receive from Beijing. U.S. Central Command, which has thousands of U.S. troops to the kingdom and elsewhere in the Middle East, will continue to work closely with its regional partners to advance a regional security architecture. Though some in Washington expressed alarm at Beijing’s involvement in the deal, it’s unclear if the Biden administration would have been able to broker it even if it wanted to. Tehran and Washington are barely on speaking terms following the Trump administration’s decisions to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and assassinate the country’s top military commander, Qasem Soleimani. What is notable of course is the decision to hand the Chinese a huge public relations victory — a photo op that is intended to demonstrate China’s newfound stature in the region. In that sense, it would appear to be yet another Saudi slap in the face to the Biden administration. On its face, the agreement achieves priorities that the United States has long sought, as tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have threatened the stability of the region and fueled catastrophic conflicts from Syria to Yemen, and it would lead to an end to the war in Yemen, which has pitted a Saudi-led coalition, backed by American-made jets, against the country’s Iranian-backed Houthi militants. For years, the United Nations called the conflict there the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, but the country has enjoyed a rare reprieve from fighting since April when a truce sponsored by the United Nations went into effect. Though the truce expired in October, the peace has largely held, and back-channel talks between the Houthis and the Saudis have resumed. Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 2016 after the Saudi Embassy in Tehran was attacked and burned by Iranian protesters angered by the kingdom’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr. The cleric had emerged as a leading figure in protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, a Shiite-majority region in the Sunni-majority nation. Anything that lowers the temperature between Iran and Saudi Arabia and lessens the possibility of conflict is a good thing. Shia-majority Iran and Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia support rival sides in several conflict zones across the Middle East, including in Yemen, where the Houthi rebels are backed by Tehran and Riyadh leads a military coalition supporting the government. Besides the war in Yemen, Iran, and Saudi Arabia also are on rival sides in Lebanon and Syria. Improved relations between Tehran and Riyadh, therefore, could have an effect on politics across the Middle East. The security situation in the region, like in Yemen and Lebanon, deteriorates and suffers when these two countries have differences. With this deal, it is possible that it might start to see compromises in these countries. This deal can lead to the creation of a better security situation in the region.
The landmark deal is a diplomatic win for China in a region where geopolitics has been dominated by the United States. China’s successful brokering of a detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia forced the United States into the awkward position of applauding a major Middle East accord secured by its main geopolitical rival.
China is a top purchaser of Saudi oil and has a big interest in not seeing the regional security situation descend into chaos, such as in 2019, when the waterways of Hormuz were the sites of different explosions and attacks. There are inherent interests for the Chinese to try and use the leverage that they have towards both Tehran and Riyadh to make some efforts to balance these relations and finalize what the Iraqis and Omanis had in fact started. China played a role shows where global power is shifting — and a meaningful change in how Chinese President Xi Jinping conducts Middle East policy. Thus far, Beijing has been cautious in taking an active role there; this diplomacy, while significant, doesn’t mean China is trying to displace the US security role in the Middle East. U.S. abdication in the Middle East led to Chinese diplomatic power. All diplomacy and normalization are good if it leads to more communication and can calm tensions. Iran and Saudi Arabia are in opposition across the Middle East, in the tragic proxy war in Yemen, where more than 150,000 people have died, as well as in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Since then Iran’s pursuit of nuclear enrichment has led Saudi Arabia to seek a civilian nuclear program. Saudi Arabia has often been on alert for Iranian attacks, and it has led to fears of unintended escalation between the two countries that could set off a broader war. The Saudi Arabia and Gulf monarchies were already forging a foreign policy independent of the US, in response to what they saw as the abdication of the US military responsibility for the Gulf and diplomatic ineptitude. After Iran interfered in the key energy shipping pathway around and in the Strait of Hormuz and it or its proxy forces attacked a Saudi Aramco facility in Abqaiq in 2019, the US did not respond with military force. Such US restraint may have been smart in terms of not escalating tensions, but it did leave Saudi Arabia and its partners without a sense of US security backing. And it’s not yet clear whether the normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a true reconciliation or just a brief cessation of hostilities. Regardless, it’s a promising sign for stability in the region for the short term — less so for US influence in it. Indeed, China is trying to produce a peaceful, international environment there, in which you can do business. Saudi Arabia, long a US partner, appears to be shaking off its commitment to a unipolar US world. It says a lot about how Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman conducts foreign policy as the kingdom brings China and Iran closer, in pursuit of security outside traditional Western allies. Saudi has also a preference for an alternative world order that is dominated by the likes of Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It’s a big blow to the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. Both the Biden and Trump administrations tethered their Saudi and Middle East policy to uniting Israel and Gulf states over countering Iran. Iran and Saudi Arabia’s cooling of tensions show that for all of the kingdom’s harsh anti-Iranian rhetoric in recent years, there is space for collaboration, albeit without a strong US role. China is the largest trading partner of the Gulf and most of the Middle East, and it has a real stake in an easing of tensions. Looking ahead, Saudi Arabia made a strategic choice here and elsewhere — it’s looking to join the BRICS grouping of developing countries and take on observer status at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It indicates that the kingdom wants to focus on domestic economic development over geopolitical conflicts at present, particularly as conflicts in Syria and Yemen settle into a stalemate and Iran’s leaders are preoccupied with domestic unrest. Biden and the US would never agree to Saudi conditions of nuclear power and security guarantees, and Saudi Arabia is unlikely to agree to a real peace deal with Israel. Removing misunderstandings and the future-oriented views in relations between Tehran and Riyadh will definitely lead to improving regional stability and security as well as increasing cooperation among Persian Gulf nations and the world of Islam for managing current challenges, whereas, it’s hoped that China will continue to play a constructive role in handling hotspot issues and demonstrate responsibility as a major nation.