A deal struck by Iran and Saudi Arabia on Friday to reset ties has shifted concerns back to the status of the US role in the Middle East – especially since the deal was brokered by Washington’s main adversary China .
The diplomatic agreement, following four days of talks with senior security officials in Beijing, eases tensions between the Middle East powers after seven years of hostilities.
Iran and Saudi Arabia both announced that they would resume diplomatic relations and reopen embassies in their respective countries within two months. joint statement.
Alex Watanka, director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute, said the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal was an important agreement for the region, but questioned whether it would end any violence, including in war-torn Yemen.
“It remains to be seen whether they can have a meaningful dialogue. Opening embassies does not equate to meaningful dialogue,” Vatanka said. “There will be a steep ride ahead.”
Saudi Arabia, a major Sunni Muslim country, severed ties with Iran in 2016 after protesters stormed the country’s embassy in Iran following the execution of a Shia Muslim cleric as well as other prisoners.
Both nations have also been on the sidelines of the deadly civil war in Yemen, with Saudi Arabia supporting Yemen’s government and Iran supporting the opposition Houthis.
Friday’s news was a diplomatic and political breakthrough for Beijing, which also recently published a peace plan to end the war in Ukraine.
China’s top diplomat Wang Yi hailed the agreement on Friday as a “victory” and said his country would continue to address global issues, according to statements carried by several Chinese newspapers.
But the agreement undermines America’s position in the region. After withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in 2021, the US has reduced its size in Syria.
The deal also comes at a time when Saudi Arabia is seeking some security guarantees, a steady flow of arms shipments and assistance with its civilian nuclear program in order to normalize relations with Israel, a major US ally. , the White House confirmed on Friday.
Speaking to reporters, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the US was “informed” about the Saudi Arabia-Iran talks but played no role in them.
Kirby welcomed the normalization of relations between the two countries, should this reduce violence in the Middle East.
“To the extent that it can reduce tensions, it’s all for the good side of the ledger,” Kirby said, adding that the US is not backing down from its role in the Middle East.
Vatanka of the Middle East Institute said both Iran and Saudi Arabia have been seeking to ease tensions over the past few years.
While he was puzzled by China’s role as a mediator, Watanka said the deal is not “a big loss” for Washington in the long term.
“It symbolically looks like the United States has not been able to be a major player,” he said. “But it’s not going to be the Chinese-dominated Middle East.”
China is a major buyer of Saudi oil and has close ties with Iran.
In contrast, America’s relations with Iran have been strained for decades and a similar normalization agreement would have been nearly impossible for Washington to mediate.
Some experts have cautioned that China is ushering in a new era of diplomatic engagement in the Middle East, where it previously had mostly economic ties.
Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at The Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs, warned of an “emerging political role for China in the region”.
Penikoff wrote Friday, “This should be a warning to American policymakers: Abandon the Middle East and break ties with sometimes frustrating, even barbaric, but longstanding allies, and You’ll just be leaving a void for China to fill.” Analysis.
Middle East politics have become more tense for the US as Israel clashes with Palestinians seeking an independent state in Israeli-occupied Gaza and the West Bank. The ongoing civil war in Syria, violence in Yemen, heightened tensions over Iranian support for Russia and a canceled nuclear deal with Tehran have added to the complications.
President Biden also traveled to Saudi Arabia last summer amid high gas prices in the US and was seen fist bumping Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has overseen human rights abuses and the murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. was criticized for. A few months after the visit, the White House was angered when the Saudi-led oil alliance OPEC+ slashed oil production.
Still, during remarks Friday on the economy, Biden appeared to welcome the diplomatic settlement. “Better relations between Israel and their Arab neighbors are better for everyone,” the president said.
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